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Vol. 6, No. 3, LIN Hongxuan


Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 3

English as an Islamic Cosmopolitan Vernacular: English-Language Sufi Devotional Literature in Singapore

Lin Hongxuan*

*林宏轩, Department of History, University of Washington, 318 Smith Box 353560, Seattle, WA 98195-3560, USA
e-mail: linhx[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.6.3_447

The key question this paper addresses is why Sufi devotional literature has been published and consumed in English, and the implications of this phenomenon. The material examined here focuses on literature that is consumed in Singapore: available in bookstores, in institutional archives, online, distributed at Sufi events, and in the private possession of practicing Sufis. I argue that English is used as both a Singaporean vernacular and a cosmopolitan lingua franca, allowing Sufis across the world to communicate with one another. I also argue that the adoption of English is necessarily tied to the rise of digital media and the perception of English as a “modern” marker of prestige and sobriety. This paper is organized in three parts. First, it traces the evolution of a reading public for Sufi devotional literature in Muslim Southeast Asia. Second, it investigates how and why producers of such literature have expressed themselves in English. Third, it analyzes how English operates in conjunction with Arabic in Sufi literature consumed in Singapore. I conclude that Sufi print culture’s adoption of English is a response to both the opportunities and the challenges of the present, constituting a reflection of Sufis’ pedagogical needs as well as an active appropriation of a loaded language.

Keywords: Sufism, Singapore, Southeast Asian Islam, Sufi print culture, English


This paper studies the emergence of Sufi devotional literature in English, as consumed and produced in Singapore. In the broader context of South and Southeast Asian Islamic literary networks, this paper traces the historical evolution of the publication and consumption of Sufi devotional literature in various media: in print, audio and video recordings, and digital media. It tracks how Sufi devotional literature has adopted new languages, such as English, while retaining its fundamental relationship with Arabic. This is an understudied phenomenon, even as the broader field of scholarship on Islamic spirituality in South and Southeast Asia has undergone significant expansion since the 1990s. This paper will focus on Singapore, both because of the country’s traditional role as a hub of print culture for Muslim Southeast Asia since the nineteenth century, and because it is a linguistically heterogeneous country that has embraced English as the sine qua non of all public discourse. Because of Singapore’s peculiar linguistic makeup, I argue that the country constitutes a particularly rich case study for the dynamics of Sufism’s engagement with different media and languages.

Sufi devotional literature can broadly be defined as works in various media that aid the individual seeker (murid) in his/her quest for spiritual gnosis, whether they be a learned treatise penned by a shaykh, a guide to performing specific forms of dhikr (a ceremony of remembrance of God, often involving repetitive, meditative chanting), the hagiography of a Sufi shaykh, a biweekly newsletter, or a website explicating Sufi concepts. They can be meant for private edification or to be used in ritual settings. Devotional texts play an important role in the construction of Sufi identity and its propagation: “Sufi identity [is] textual and contextual. It is envisioned and articulated within texts. At the same time, it is experienced and expressed in ritual contexts” (Rozehnal 2007, 14). Such literature is a key part of how Sufism is presented, transmitted, and practiced, functioning as a repository of a tariqa’s (pl. turuq) traditions and precepts.

Historically, Singapore has acted as a key node in the regional network of transmission of Islamic knowledge (including tasawwuf, the mystical/spiritual element of Islam popularly called Sufism), which justifies the attention paid by this paper to relevant developments in the Indonesian Archipelago, the Malay Peninsula, and the Indian Subcontinent (Roff 2009, 99–100). The need to consider developments in Singapore in the context of South and Southeast Asian Sufism is justified primarily by the trans-local nature of Sufi turuq (Chih 2007, 26–28). In the context of this study, tariqa, while often translated as “brotherhood” or “order,” is better understood as a community built around the spiritual lineage, or silsila, of a spiritual master, or shaykh. Sufi turuq active in Singapore often have counterparts in Indonesia and Malaysia that adherents themselves understand to be part of the same community of muridin (seekers, or students), though this identification has more to do with shared practices and spiritual and pedagogical relationships with specific shaykhs than with any notion of belonging to a brotherhood or order in the monastic sense (ibid.). Therefore, a tariqa that bears the name Qadiriyya would be a tariqa that embraces the spiritual tradition and precepts laid out by the Qadiri tradition, and whose leading shaykhs have received their ijazah (license to teach) from Qadiri shaykhs that preceded them. These spiritual traditions are dynamic, and not mutually exclusive; a tariqa named the Qadiriyya-wa-Naqshbandiyya would be a tariqa that embraced the precepts of both the Qadiri and the Naqshbandi traditions, and its shaykhs would have received ijazah from both, reckoning their double-barreled silsila accordingly. Moreover, a regional focus is necessary because of the functional unity of the Southeast Asian region as both a producer and consumer of Sufi devotional literature. Numerous works in both English and Malay, interpolated with Arabic and published in Indonesia or Malaysia, can be found in Singapore. Thus, Muslim Southeast Asia can be reasonably theorized as a single publishing and consumer network, one that shares shaykhs, muridin, and historical trends in the publication and consumption of Islamic knowledge.

The analytical framework used here is derived from two sources: first, Sheldon Pollock’s concept of Sanskrit functioning as a cosmopolitan “code for literary and political expression” within the “Sanskrit Cosmopolis”; and second, Ronit Ricci’s subsequent adaptation of it to characterize an “Arabic Cosmopolis” across the Indian Ocean (Pollock 2006, 11; Ricci 2011, 2). Pollock compares the use of Sanskrit in diverse societies in conjunction with the adoption of Indic culture and the forms of legitimacy that the use of Sanskrit conferred. Ricci adapted the concept of a Cosmopolis underwritten by a common language to the Islamic ummah (the global community of Muslims), another geographically diverse Cosmopolis underpinned by its use of Arabic as a language of civilizational discourse and a marker of identity. Moreover, she understood this Arabic Cosmopolis to be held together by written as well as spoken Arabic; the ummah existed as a trans-regional community partially because manuscripts and printed texts, written in Arabic, were circulated in shared “literary networks” (Ricci 2011, 4). Arabic plays a unique role in Islam as the language of the Qur’an, the irreplaceable original language of scriptural revelation. The emergence of Sufi literature in English has to be understood within the context of Arabic’s primacy. Even where Arabic is not the primary medium of transmission, it is often incorporated into the text—partly because it provides an irreplaceable common idiom of expression, partly because it functions as a marker of religious identity, and partly because it carries the weight of sacred authority.

I draw on Pollock’s notion of how a Cosmopolis, an oikouménē, can be bound by a shared vocabulary of religion and power embedded in a language. Specifically, I relate Pollock’s description of a cosmopolitan lingua franca interacting with local vernaculars to Sufi devotional literature in Arabic, Malay, Tamil, and English (Pollock 2006, 12). In the same vein, I draw on Ricci’s concept of an Arabic Cosmopolis in which Arabic interacts with vernaculars such as English. English serves the cosmopolitan function of connecting a linguistically diverse ummah while continuing to operate in close relation to older lingua franca such as Arabic, as illustrated by the generous retention of Arabic words and transliterated Romanized Arabic in the primarily English-language texts studied here. Ultimately, I argue that English exists in a diglossic relationship with Arabic; both languages are necessary to facilitate the transmission of Sufi knowledge, but Arabic has clear precedence over English.

In Singapore English has been appropriated by Muslims, including Sufis, as a medium for the transmission of Islamic knowledge. At one level, the use of English as a language of Islamic discourse in Singapore simply reflects the changing educational profile of Muslims, given Singapore’s imposition of English as the primary medium of public discourse and national education. However, English has been appropriated by Muslims also because of the sobriety and professionalism associated with the language in the Singaporean and global context. The expression of Sufi knowledge in English represents not just Sufism reflecting the social context it inhabits, but also the effort Sufis have made to selectively engage with various forms of modernity (Rozehnal 2007, 7). Singapore was—and is—certainly an important node in the publishing and transmission of Islamic print culture in the Indian Ocean, but Singaporean Sufis’ use of English should not be thought of as a unique outlier or an Anglophone abnormality in a sea of vernacular-dominant Sufi literary culture. I contend that the case study of Singapore is instructive in a broader sense because it illustrates the latest example of a long-standing process coterminous with the spread of Islam: Islam’s interaction with new languages, demographics, and technologies, all the while retaining the centrality of both spoken and written Arabic. In the process, English has become naturalized as one of many Islamic vernaculars while retaining the cosmopolitan function of connecting Singaporean Sufis to the broader Islamic world, a significant proportion of which is now Anglophone.

Modernity, where referenced here, refers not to the objective reality of a “modern” condition but rather a perception of modernity. This perceived modernity is often associated with English and spans various cultural and geographic contexts (Lee 2006; Lim et al. 2010; Lanza 2014). English is inextricably tied up in narratives of development and education, is acknowledged as the language of global capitalism, and continues to bear the mantle of prestige bestowed upon it by colonial education systems. In other words, English is widely perceived as a facilitator of social mobility in Southeast Asia, with all its attendant cultural connotations of value and legitimacy. English is an agent, or signifier, of that condition called “modern.” Modernity is a perceived state of being, and inherently subjective; this paper makes no claims regarding its theoretical validity or even its existence, but rather explores how English is invoked and utilized in relation to conceptions of modernity in Sufi devotional literature.

Sources and Methodology

Fieldwork for this study was conducted primarily from 2011 to 2012, with some additional research conducted in 2017. The focus is on documenting and analyzing textual sources available in bookstores, institutional collections, and mosques and privately owned by Singaporean Sufis. The study focuses also on material hosted on websites or distributed via mailing lists that cater to the devotional needs of Sufi muridin. This is supplemented by interviews and personal communications with a limited number of Singaporean Sufis, including muridin, shaykhs, and booksellers. I fully acknowledge the anthropological limitations of my approach, in that my arguments are grounded in my analysis of how English-language texts, both printed and digital, function, rather than the result of sustained and structured interviews with Singaporean Sufis themselves. This is an approach that privileges textual analysis: I acknowledge that I surrender valuable insight by forgoing systematic interviews, but I contend that the printed and digital materials I examine are sufficiently rich to warrant specific attention. I believe that this paper makes a contribution to the extant literature on Singaporean Sufism, and the relationship between English and Sufism, by examining a key aspect of how Sufism functions both historically and in the present: its relationship with print culture, whether physical or digital. This paper further serves as an invitation to complementary and deeper anthropological or sociological studies of Singaporean Sufism, which remains an understudied phenomenon.

The sources canvassed here are drawn from Wardah Books, one of Singapore’s most prominent Sufi bookstores; the Majlis Ulama Islam Singapura (MUIS) Resource Centre at its headquarters on Braddell Road; the English Bookstore, a subsidiary of Darul Arqam, the Singaporean Muslim Converts Association; the private collection of the Simply Islam offices on Tanjong Katong Road; and finally, the holdings of the Ba’Alawi Mosque on Lewis Road. This paper also draws on the private collections of Sufis who are personal friends, primarily from the Tijani tariqa. The final, but substantial, corpus of material examined is digital: I examine Sufi devotional literature, whether audio, video, or text, hosted on websites and distributed via mailing lists. The few personal communications from 2011 to 2012 cited here were based on unstructured face-to-face interactions, and these are supplemented by structured interviews conducted via e-mail in 2017.

Part I Consumers of Sufi Devotional Literature: The Development of a Muslim Reading Public in Southeast Asia

This section will trace the historical development of the Muslim reading public in the Malay Archipelago, an integral part of broader trans-regional literary networks, and explore the ways in which devotional literature was, and continues to be, used by Singaporean Sufis. It is important to begin by establishing the historical importance of texts for Sufi praxis. Sufi devotional literature was often incorporated into communal rituals such as hadra, a Sufi ritual that covers a range of practices such as recitation of the Qur’an, sermons, collective study of a text, and communal dhikr, the defining ritual of Sufi praxis. In the 1970s the Ahmadi Shaykh Muhammad Murtada conducted hadra and dars (regular lessons) in Singapore “based around the reading of a text, as had been the practice of such scholars for centuries” (Sedgewick 2005, 171). The two main texts for dars used by the Ahmadiyyah were photocopies of a selected commentary on hadith, and a fiqh textbook (ibid.).1) Similarly, when the mawlid (anniversary celebrations) of various Ahmadi shaykhs were celebrated in Thailand throughout the twentieth century, Malaysian and Egyptian imprints of the Ahmadi awrad (distinctive prayers of a tariqa) were used for communal dhikr (ibid., 175). The provenance of these texts testifies to the trans-regional circulation of texts, which continues to be the case for Sufi devotional materials today: English translations of classical Sufi texts such as Imam al-Ghazali’s The Revival of Religious Sciences and the Shadhili Shaykh Ibn Ataillah’s The Refinement of Souls continue to have broad appeal to Singaporean Sufis’ various turuq.2)

Sufism’s Relationship with Print Culture

Sufism has had a long and fruitful relationship with print culture, with Muhsin Mahdi going so far as to argue that “Sufis were in fact the main patrons of printing in Muslim countries during the 19th century” (Mahdi 1995, 6–7). The religious economy of Muslim Southeast Asia was drastically influenced by the explosion in print culture from the early nineteenth century onward. Sufi enthusiasm for print is evident in the hagiographies of Qadiri shaykhs that were produced specifically for the Southeast Asian market (Laffan 2011, 102–104). Similarly, Majum’a (compendiums) of stories about the seventeenth-century Shattari Shaykh Shah Wajih al-din ’Alawi circulated in the Malay Archipelago (Green 2008, 130, 135). The technology of print and its potential power was appreciated by the literate Muslim elite, many of whom were themselves Sufis: texts found in looted kraton (Javanese royal palaces) in the early 1830s indicate that printed Sufi manuals were used by combatants in the Padri War (1821–38) as talismans in battle and as religious guidebooks (Laffan 2011, 93–94).

Sufi turuq themselves were popularized through the adoption of print as a means of disseminating their ideas and practices, particularly from 1850 to 1890 (ibid., 60). Southeast Asian branches of the Naqshbandiyya tariqa benefited immensely in this regard. Nevertheless, print never completely superseded older vectors of transmission such as manuscripts; they coexisted and worked in conjunction with one another (Green 2011, 61). The Khalidiyya, a branch of the Naqshbandiyya, were particularly popular in this period, and Khalidi shaykhs successfully inserted themselves into the system of Ottoman suzerainty, partly as a result of the high profile their publications had brought them (ibid., 50–51). Trans-regional debates over the heterodoxy of the Khalidiyya, such as that between the Patani-based Khalidi murid Ahmad al-Fatani and the chief imam of the Shafi’i madhhab (school of jurisprudence) of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Ahmad Khatib al-Minankabawi (1860–1916), were conducted publicly through printed pamphlets and fatwas. This revealed the existence of a whole body of Naqshbandi literature that Ahmad Khatib drew upon in order to criticize his opponent and substantiate his arguments (Laffan 2011, 178–180). Evidently the ability to master, translate, and provide commentary on Sufi devotional texts—if only to prove their heterodoxy—was of central importance to Muslim intellectual discourses and evinces the intimate relationship between Sufism and the printed word.

Singapore itself was an important part of the nexus of Sufi print culture. It was the main base of the Qadiriyya-wa-Naqshbandiyya in Southeast Asia (a noted member of this tariqa, Ahmad Khatib of Sambas, was based in Singapore) as well as the fulcrum of the “Sumatran-Malay nexus of transmission,” acting as a publishing center for polemics such as Salim bin Sumayr’s refutation of Ismail al-Minankabawi, in print from 1852 to 1853 (ibid., 53–54). This was made possible by the establishment of printing presses in Singapore, as well as the expertise of printers and the commercial means of dissemination (ibid., 55). Singapore also hosted a reading public deeply interested in issues of Sufi praxis, mirroring broader regional concerns; al-Imam, a Modernist journal that often debated Sufi orthopraxy (publishing an attack on Sufism in general and the Ahmadiyya in particular in 1908), was printed in Singapore from 1906 to 1908 and had its 2,000 monthly copies distributed throughout the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, and Borneo (Sedgewick 2005, 130; Laffan 2011, 183). The scene is one of a vibrant and connected Muslim community enthusiastically using print as a medium to air grievances, attempt reform, and issue polemics or apologetics.

Presently, Singaporean Sufis continue to embrace the use of devotional literature as an essential component of their praxis and pedagogy. The owner of a Sufi bookstore in Singapore, himself a Sufi, had this to say about the present importance of printed materials:

Print materials are usually used for instruction and for inspiration. These materials are in English and Malay. The novice might rely on printed material for awrad, but after a couple of months they would have memorized it. The advantage of the awrad being available in print is the standardization that it brings with it. During dhikr we just use our misbaha (prayer beads). Yes, shaykhs do use print materials when teaching. They usually teach from books, and these books are also available to the students.3)

Moreover, devotional literature can also function as a doorway to Sufi spiritual discipline. Given the educational and social terrain of Singapore (discussed in the following section), English-language devotional literature plays an important role as the first “point of contact” with Sufism for younger Muslims. While long-established networks linking muridin, turuq, prestigious shaykhs, and famous mosques continue to play an important role in structuring how Singaporean Sufis organize themselves, and consequently how new adherents are drawn into the fold, younger Muslims overwhelmingly educated in English-medium schools are often first drawn to Sufism through devotional literature. The aforementioned bookstore owner also recognized the importance of English-language Sufi devotional literature as a gateway to deeper engagement with the Sufi path:

As an Anglophone, I have to say yes [to the importance and relevance of English-language print material] . . . The printed text, at least for my generation, is usually the first encounter a seeker has of the Sufi path and all its myriad possibilities. Initially the aspirant is hungry for material and consumes a lot of print work; this then usually culminates in finding a shaykh. Then the aspirant reads deeply within his or her own path (books of the particular path). At this point some continue reading and some others slow down their consumption of texts, but not with the initial fervor.

Devotional literature, then, was historically important for Sufis across Southeast Asia but remains important today both as a means of accessing Sufism as well as a means of facilitating its praxis.

Islamic Educational Institutions in the Colonial Period

Historically, Sufi turuq were often supra-local, linked by the shared lineages of their shaykhs (silsila), and many turuq straddled different regions but identified themselves as part of a larger tariqa built around a common silsila (Howell 2007, 217). In the Netherlands East Indies, Sufi turuq in the nineteenth century were often linked to networks of pesantren, whose kyai (traditional Javanese scholars/teachers) were virtually always Sufis (ibid., 218). Pesantren thus acted as platforms for the dissemination of Sufi knowledge and were the sites of mutual reinforcement of different realms of Islamic knowledge: the Islamic sciences as well as tasawwuf (Van Bruinessen 2007, 96). Print technology (specifically, the lithograph press and the later movable-type press) was introduced to South and Southeast Asia around 1820 and was enthusiastically taken up by Muslims by the 1840s (Green 2011, 162). So was English, and surprisingly early: Islamic Modernist organizations such as Anjuman-e Islam set up English-medium schools in the 1880s to “teach young Muslims the forms of knowledge that the Anjuman’s fathers considered essential for the modern age” (Laffan 2011, 37).

Singapore’s status as a point of transit for itinerant scholars from Hadramaut, Patani, Aceh, Palembang, and Java, as well as its networks of madrassahs, pondok, and surau, made it “a publication and distribution center for religious writings” in the late nineteenth century (Roff 2009, 82). Sufi tracts in circulation both in Singapore and around the region included Muhammad Arshad bin Abdallah al-Banjari’s Sabil al-Muhtadin (The way of the guided) and Abd al-Samad al-Palembani’s Malay translations of portions of al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum ad-Din (Revival of the religious sciences) under the titles Sayr us-Salikin and Hikayat us-Salikin, all of which were intended for use as teaching materials (ibid., 84). Evidence from the nineteenth century, though scant, also suggests that tasawwuf was taught in larger pondok, which were reliable consumers of Sufi print culture (Van Bruinessen 1990, 226–229). The development of a Southeast Asian Muslim reading public was thus “. . . greatly helped by the publishing facilities which now sprang up in Singapore, and ultimately by the gradual spread of literacy” (Roff 2009, 83).

In the Netherlands East Indies the elimination of courtly centers of patronage, the benign neglect of pondok and pesantren, and the policy of co-opting allies from amongst the native ulama allowed pesantren to flourish (they were also often tax exempt), as was the case of the prominent Hadhrami ulama Sayyid Uthman’s network of pesantren (Laffan 2011, 62). It was apparent by the late 1840s that “pondok located near commercial towns had become key nodes of intellectual exchange” (ibid.). These developments relate directly to Singapore in that pesantren in the Indies were often a stepping stone to further education in Surabaya or Singapore as well as far-flung Mecca, Medina, and Cairo. Noted scholars such as Abd al-Rahman al-Saqqaf and Salim bin Sumayr were based in Singapore, a testament to its centrality in trans-regional educational networks (ibid., 47). By facilitating commerce and urbanization, and promoting the colonial state as a patron of indigenous religions, British and Dutch colonialism allowed pesantren to flourish and Islamic learning to proliferate, with a concomitant spread of Sufi teachings if not turuq themselves.

The growth of Modernist Islamic educational institutions in Singapore also contributed toward this dynamism, by increasing the numbers of the Muslim reading public. Madrassahs such as al-Mashur al-Islamiyyah and al-Haji Taib, both of which taught English as a language alongside religious sciences in Arabic, helped stimulate a market for Sufi literature by promoting literacy (ibid., 99–101, 122).4) Of particular interest is the early appropriation of English; given the economic realities of colonial Singapore, it was clearly recognized that functional fluency in English was a way to access public sector jobs. Modernist Islamic educational institutions responded accordingly, taking the first steps toward mass Muslim literacy in English. This was certainly true of the Madrassah al-Ma’arif in Tajong Katong, Singapore, founded by Shaykh Muhammad Fadhlullah Suhaimi, then head of the Aurad Muhammadiah tariqa, in 1936. This Modernist madrassah pioneered English-language instruction alongside Malay and Arabic, as well as the teaching of secular knowledge such as science and mathematics (Ahmad Fauzi 2012, 75–76). Shaykh Fadhlullah’s son, Shaykh Muhammad Taha Suahimi, would go on to achieve prominence both as the head of the Aurud Muhammadiah tariqa as well as the first president of the Shari’a Court of Singapore; Shaykh Taha was also the first preacher to recite Friday sermons in English (ibid.). The madrassah still stands today, retaining its progressive vision (particularly in advocating Islamic education for women), and remains one of the foremost centers of pre-tertiary Islamic religious instruction in Singapore (ibid., 85–86; Aljuneid and Dayang Istiasiyah 2005, 253).

Postcolonial Islamic Educational Institutions

The growth of state-sponsored Islamic educational institutions in independent Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia also helped stimulate the publication of Sufi devotional literature. These institutions combined secular and Islamic subjects to meet the developing economy’s demands for skilled labor and helped foster an increasingly literate Muslim public. In some cases, they directly stimulated the articulation and dissemination of Sufi knowledge. The co-optation of existing madrassahs in Singapore as part of the national education system through the Administration of Muslim Law Act (1966) formalized English-medium instruction in madrassah curricula, thus further cultivating a market for Islamic literature in English (Aljuneid and Dayang Istiasiyah 2005, 250). The aforementioned Madrassah al-Ma’arif in Singapore is a good example of how educational institutions have deepened Sufism’s engagement with English. Shaykh Muhammad Taha (d. 1999), son of the madrassah’s founder and his heir as the leading shaykh of the Aurad Muhammadiah tariqa, was a prolific writer and speaker, publishing and preaching regularly in both Malay and English (Ahmad Fauzi 2012, 76). While not all students of the madrassah become muridin of the tariqa, elements of the tariqa’s awrad are incorporated into the curriculum, and the tariqa itself has experienced significant growth since 2000, with an estimated 18,000 adherents in Singapore alone (ibid., 77). With the national education system having long since adopted English-language instruction, the full incorporation of the Madrassah al-Ma’arif into the education system in the late 1990s further entrenched the use of English as a suitable medium for Islamic discourse (alongside Malay and Arabic) amongst the many students who passed through its doors.

In Malaysia the establishment of government religious schools, sekolah agama kerjaan, in the 1920s and 1930s, and tertiary institutions such as Kolej Islam Malaya in 1955, reflects this trend (Roff 2009, 126–127). In Indonesia institutions such as IAIN Syarif Hidyatullah under the noted Indonesian scholar Harun Nasution (1919–98) and his successors actively promoted a holistic understanding of Islamic knowledge, with a curriculum that covered even controversial aspects of mutazili theology and ibn Arabi’s writings, which equipped students with the conceptual tools and scholastic resources to explore other branches of Islamic learning such as tasawwuf (Riddell 2001, 231–233). Moreover, under Nasution’s term as rector, IAIN Syarif Hidyatullah saw the systematic incorporation of secular subjects, Western academic disciplines, into the curricula alongside traditional Islamic sciences. The curriculum encouraged accommodation between two fields of knowledge often perceived as distinct—undoing “knee-jerk hostility and suspicion of all things Western” (ibid., 231–232)—which made English an increasingly viable language for transmitting Islamic knowledge.

Of equal importance was the emergence of private Islamic educational foundations and businesses that equipped students with the intellectual tools to pursue tasawwuf and think critically about religion in general. These institutions helped disseminate both the desire and means to pursue Islamic knowledge, including tasawwuf. The most visible private Islamic educational institution in Southeast Asia was Nurcholish Madjid’s (1939–2005) Paramadina Foundation and Paramadina University in Jakarta. Its adoption of university-style classes for adults and consultative, dialectical learning proved popular during the Reformasi era. Similar organizations included Tazkiya Sejati, the Intensive Course and Networking for the Islamic Sciences (ICNIS), the Indonesian Islamic Media Network, and the educational wings of major mosques such as Masjid At-Tin, al-Azhar, and Istiqlal (Howell 2007, 230). Notably, all these institutions integrated tasawwuf into their syllabi, and ICNIS even offered (short-lived) courses on tasawwuf studies online (ibid., 233). Such curricula helped stimulate a renewed interest in Sufism and opened students’ eyes to Sufi ideas and practices circulating outside of the traditional, pesantren-based Sufism of the Javanese and Malay world. “By displaying the sophisticated theological and ethical scholarship of the Sufi traditions, the new commercial adult Islamic educational institutions . . . stimulated many ‘alumni’ to search further, beyond their tasawwuf courses” (ibid., 231). Evidently traditional and modern, experiential and academic forms of Sufism mutually reinforced each other, stimulating the consumption of Sufi devotional literature. Tazkiya Sejati even actively encouraged its students to join a tariqa and developed links with the major turuq of Indonesia: the Qadiriyya wa-Naqshbandiyya, Rida’iyya, Shattariyya, and Tijaniyya (ibid., 235).

The Symbiotic Relationship between Sufism and Islamic Modernism

Another important stimulant to Sufi print culture was the contest to define orthodox Islam, as expressed in the troubled but symbiotic relationship between Islamic Modernism and Sufism. Printed denunciations by Islamic Modernists of what they saw as syncretic, folk Islam provided an impetus to Sufi publishing: they prompted Sufis to reassert, defend, explain, and clarify themselves in print (Laffan 2011, 180). While this dynamic relationship reaches back to the late nineteenth century, a good example of the Sufi response to Modernist criticism remains Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah’s (1908–81, hereafter Hamka) attempt to reconcile Sufism with orthodoxy. Hamka went so far as to suggest in Tasawwuf Moderen (1939) and Pelajaran Agama Islam (1975) that knowledge of tasawwuf could be gleaned from texts, relegating the spiritual discipline and ritual praxis of turuq to the back seat (Riddell 2001, 216–219). While Hamka was no defender of traditional Sufism, his emphasis on individual agency and the importance of texts as pedagogical tools prefigures Sufism’s later embrace of English and digital media. The impact of Islamic Modernism was not just in stimulating Sufi polemics; the platforms for the propagation of Modernism, educational institutions, and civic organizations were also adopted by Sufis. Muhammad Zuhri’s (b. 1939, a Sufi spiritual teacher unaffiliated with any turuq) Pesantren Budaya Barzakh (Barzakh Cultural School) as well as its affiliates, Yayasan Barzakh (Barzakh Foundation) and Keluarga Budaya Barzakh (Barzakh Cultural Family), founded in the 1990s, all emphasized the study of tasawwuf in their publications (ibid., 220).

This fraught but symbiotic relationship has continued well into the present: as late as 1986, Sufi apologetics were being published by Ahmadi shaykhs in Singapore, such as Abd al-Rashid’s Zikir dan Wasilah, which stresses the legitimacy and necessity of the shaykh-murid relationship, tawassul (intercession), and hadra (Sedgewick 2005, 192). Similarly, the foundation of journals such as the Nahdlatul Ulama-linked Sufi in Jakarta in 2000 illustrates the continuing stimulus to Sufi print culture provided by the need to engage with Islamic Modernism. The editor of Sufi, Luqman Hakiem, was ideologically close to Madjid as well as to Jaringan Islam Liberal, the Liberal Islam Network (Laffan 2007, 162–163).

The Bureaucratization and Institutionalization of Islam

Returning to Singapore, the postcolonial bureaucratization and institutionalization of Islam stimulated the articulation of Sufi knowledge and precipitated the use of English by reconfiguring religious legitimacy, reorienting legitimacy away from particular shaykhs or imams and locating it instead in state institutions (Sedgewick 2005, 180). Increasingly, it was not the shaykh’s pronouncements or the community’s traditions that shaped Sufi praxis: state institutions increasingly claimed the right to determine what constituted Sufi praxis. The bureaucratization of Islam through the formation of the Department of Islamic Advancement of Malaysia (Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, JAKIM) in 1997 and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Majlis Ulama Islam Singapura, MUIS) in 1968 was accompanied by the rise of a Muslim middle class and an increasing aversion to perceptions of heterodoxy as well as a stronger preference for codified forms of shari’a. This stimulated the articulation of Sufi knowledge in the national(ized) languages of Southeast Asia, including English in Singapore, as part of an attempt to indigenize, demystify, and thereby regulate Sufism within the boundaries of the nation-state (Maznah 2012, 105–106).

The adoption of English by bureaucratic institutions such as MUIS helped push Sufi engagement with English: even the Ahmadi Shaykh Abd al-Rashid sent his children to English-medium secular schools (Sedgewick 2005, 191). In 2012 MUIS launched English-language outreach programs such as “YouthAlive!” and “TeensAlive!” which suggests that English was presumed to be the logical medium of communication with Muslim youth (MUIS 2012a; 2012b). Maznah Mohamad describes the Islamization of state institutions in Malaysia as a means of seizing and consolidating religious authority; she argues that “high culture reverence for law” is invoked to justify passing purportedly “Islamic” legislation, generating legitimacy for the state (Maznah 2012, 104). Conversely, in Singapore Islam is Anglicized so that it may be rendered local and thus made computable within the bureaucratic logic of the state. Certainly many Muslims speak English, especially Muslim youth; nevertheless, MUIS’s use of English in its public messaging to young Muslims reflects the state’s desire (refracted through obedient institutions such as MUIS) to assimilate Islam as just another religion within the body politic, a horizontal form of organization that dovetails neatly with the state’s vertical and pervasive authority.

Bureaucratization and institutionalization also stimulated the expression of Islamic discourse in new media. This was particularly evident in Malaysia: in 1973 Radio Television Malaysia, the state broadcaster, set up a “religious and da’wa unit,” which was by 1976 producing 22 programs a week on TV1 (Roff 2009, 111–112). This normalization of Islamic discourse in new media platforms eventually helped impel Sufi devotional literature to penetrate digital media such as the Internet, or at the very least created conditions conducive to such an enterprise. This dynamism was characteristic of turuq such as the Aurad Muhammadiah, which was quick to capitalize on the new opportunities for dakwah presented by television, radio, and the Internet in the form of supporting self-consciously Islamic musicians of the nasyid genre in Malaysia (Ahmad Fauzi 2012, 86).

Demographic Changes in the Ummah

One development that has had a significant impact on the kinds of Sufi texts circulated in Singapore (particularly English) has been the demographic changes to the ummah—specifically, Islamic migration to Anglophone societies and the consequent publication of materials that cater to Anglophone Muslims. Advances in communications technology have introduced “new modalities of global inter-connectedness,” while “technological and social innovations” such as the formal organization of voluntary groups “can be used to knit together previously loose networks of Sufis . . . [into a] transnational community” (Howell and van Bruinessen 2007, 11). The phenomena of Muslim immigration to Anglophone societies and conversion to Islam in Anglophone societies are relevant to Sufi devotional literature in Muslim Southeast Asia, because they stimulate the production, consumption, and dissemination of English-language devotional literature across the ummah. Given the truly global reach of the ummah and the circulation of devotional literature made possible by global publishing networks and the Internet, such materials have had no trouble finding their way to Singapore, where they often find a receptive audience.

Economic and cultural globalization—specifically the import of Western norms and consumer culture alongside business—has created the superficial but pervasive impression of religions under siege: in the case of Islam, it has led to an attempt “to establish a sphere of true ‘Islamicity,’” of which one manifestation is the turn toward Islamic spirituality or Sufism (Roy 2004, 154). This development mirrors the perceived need to establish, promote, and present a nonviolent and authentic articulation of Islam after the September 11 attacks. Through participation in the same literary networks as the global ummah, and given the prevalence of English-language education in Singapore, Singaporean muridin often end up reading the same materials that are published for the consumption of immigrants or converts in Europe or North America. A good example of one such text is The Hundred Steps, by the Darqawi-Shadhili-Qadiri Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, who publishes mostly in English and is active in the UK, Spain, and South Africa. The conferment of an honorary degree upon him by the Universiti Sains Malaysia and the presence of his books in the MUIS Resource Centre in Singapore indicate a reasonably wide audience for his work in Southeast Asia (Abdalqadir 2004). Other texts consumed in Singapore but transmitted via Europe and North America include devotional literature published by transnational turuq such as the Naqshbandiyya-Haqaniyya, whose shaykhs, most prominently the late Nazim Haqqani and Hisham Kabbani, proactively maintain a global following and have published numerous books such as those under the SufiLive and Sufi Wisdom series (SufiLive 2012).

Part II Producers of Sufi Devotional Literature: The Adoption of English and Digital Media

This section will examine the language and media in which Sufis have articulated themselves, and the historical developments that have influenced their adoption of English. The devotional literature I examined suggests that Sufis have been confident and assertive in expressing themselves in English. In these texts English supplements Arabic, serving as a kind of lubricant for the transmission of authentic Sufi knowledge. As a lingua franca, English is spoken fluently by several prominent Sufi authors with international followings while remaining a vernacular for many diasporic Muslims and recent converts. This dual nature of English is reflected in the enthusiasm with which Sufi publications have taken to using it.

Within the Indian Ocean literary network, texts published in South Asia, particularly Calcutta and Bombay, have long found receptive markets in Southeast Asia. Some 50 texts continue to be published by the Chisti Sabiri tariqa’s network of publishing houses (Rozehnal 2007, 120). Foremost among these is Mahfil-i Zauqiyya, based in Karachi, which mostly publishes English translations of works of the tariqa’s shaykhs (ibid., 122). Works such as A Guide for Spiritual Aspirants, published by A. S. Noordeen (a Kuala Lumpur-based publishing house founded by Malaysian Chisti Sabiri muridin) and with the rights to it owned by the Chisti Sabiri Association for Spiritual Training (AST), are available at Darul Arqam in Singapore (Hadrat Maulana Shah 2001). Noordeen is well known for the publication of English works of Chisti Sabiri shaykhs, and its publications have been circulated in Singapore since the late 1970s (Rozehnal 2007, 124; AST 2012). The AST was founded by Chisti Shaykh Wahid Bakhsh and also publishes an English-language journal, The Sufi Path, representative of a wider canon of such journals read within turuq that have successfully penetrated Anglophone societies in the West (Rozehnal 2007, 121). The Sufi Path is available at the Darul Arqam bookstore and is particularly interesting in that multiple issues of the journal are bound and sold together (with 10–12 in one package), suggesting that the journal is consumed as a pedagogical tool for the individual aspirant, a series of devotional guides and articles a murid can refer to in his/her own long-term study (The Sufi Path, Vols. I–XII, 1999–2006). Moreover, the use of Noordeen’s publications has spread amongst various Malaysian and Singaporean turuq, with muridin using these texts as primers or for reference despite not being part of the Chistiyya tariqa themselves (Rozehnal 2007, 124).

Singaporean Sufi publications also evince their willingness to publish in English. Examples include The Rare Gift and the Key to Opening the Door of Union (hereafter the Ratib al-Attas) and The Spread of Islam and the Role of the Sufis. Both books were published by the Ba’Alawi Mosque, the focal point of the Ba’Alawi tariqa in Singapore (al-Attas 2007; al-Attas 2011). The foremost Ba’Alawi shaykh in Singapore, Shaykh al-Habib Hasan al-Attas, indicated that the Ba’Alawi Mosque was comfortable publishing in English given the increasing numbers of aspirants who were fluent in English and who attended its weekly recitation of the Ratib al-Attas, though it also continued to publish the Ratib al-Attas and other devotional materials in Malay.5) Notably, an Arabic version of the Ratib continues to be appended to the end of each book, an indicator of Arabic’s essential role in Islamic discourse and hinting at the diglossic relationship between English and Arabic. The Spread of Islam, unlike the Ratib al-Attas, is a quick overview of the history of Sufism in Singapore and represents an attempt to engage with young, English-educated Muslims who are potential aspirants, much the same way Robert Rozehnal described the role that Chisti Sabiri Sufis envisioned for books: a gentle invitation to practice (Rozehnal 2007, 12). Another example is The Grand Saint of Singapore: The Life of Habib Nuh bin Muhammad al-Habshi, a classic hagiography of a Singaporean Sufi wali (loosely translatable as saint), printed in English and juxtaposed against Arabic throughout (Muhammad Ghouse 2008).

English-language devotional literature published in the West is common in both Singaporean bookstores and institutional collections. This includes texts that have been transmitted via Western Muslims and academics, such as The Mantle Adorned: Imam Busiri’s Burda, which is used for recitation during dhikr conducted at the Abdul Aleem Siddique Mosque, affiliated with the Naqshbandiyya-Haqqaniyya in the 1990s but which now welcomes muridin of various turuq (Hanisah 2010, 44). A British convert to Islam, the Cambridge academic T. J. Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad), translated the piece, and it was published by The Quilliam Press for an audience of Muslim immigrants and converts in the UK (Abdal Hakim Murad 2009). The Mantle Adorned has wide circulation in Singapore: besides being used in dhikr at Singapore’s Abdul Aleem Siddique Mosque, it is available in multiple bookstores as well as in the MUIS Resource Centre.

Finally, in digital media such as websites hosting text, audio, and video recordings/livestreaming, Sufis have demonstrated their willingness to express themselves in English and to engage new media to convey their message. Examples of such resources used in Singapore include, a public video streaming website via which the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Shaykh Nazim Haqqani delivered weekly lectures until his passing in 2014.6) Since 2014 Shaykh Hisham Kabbani has assumed Nazim’s leadership role, and he is now the face of the tariqa’s digital presence as well. As of July 2017, the SufiLive Facebook page had nearly 36,000 followers while its YouTube channel had nearly 28,000 subscribers from around the world, which suggests a significant appetite for its publications, particularly those published digitally. Other examples include websites catering to a more regional audience in South and Southeast Asia, such as, the Malaysian Chisti Sabiri online bookstore. All of these resources are available in English, with MoonOverMedina specializing in English-language texts. Local websites such as, which grew out of a multi-turuq Sufi conference, “The Sacred Path of Love,” organized in Singapore since 2010, as well as ancillary sites such as its community page on Facebook, act as organizational resources for the Sufi community in Singapore; their use of English reflects the educational profile of Muslims in Singapore (The Sacred Path of Love 2012a; 2012b). Members of the Facebook community page of The Sacred Path of Love continue to post links to YouTube videos, websites with Sufi resources, and invitations to related events on it, the vast majority of which are in English.

English in Singapore

English plays a special role as a language of national discourse and nation building, being promoted both as the language of modernity and economic development, as well as a means to “achieve politico-operational integration and to develop instrumental attachments to the supra-ethnic national system among the ethnically heterogeneous” (Tham 2008, 26). In the effort to transcend ethnolinguistic boundaries in a multicultural nation, Susan Gal rightly observes that “local languages are abandoned or subordinated to ‘world languages’ in diglossic relations,” with English assuming a place of national prominence above vernacular languages (Gal 1989, 356). The use of English as a language of prestige as well as a social binder is highlighted by Pierre Bourdieu: “linguistic differences are the ‘retranslation’ of social differences . . . dominant legitimate language is a distinct capital which, in discourse, produces, as its profit, a sense of the speaker’s distinction” (Jenkins 2004, 154). Language is theorized by Bourdieu as a form of social currency—specifically, “cultural capital,” encompassing “skills and knowledge, acquired through education, which can be used to acquire jobs, money and status” (Swartz 1997, 177). In the case of English in Singapore, this holds true; it is a language associated with modernity and the “appropriate” (politically correct or neutral) medium of discourse in a multicultural Singapore hypersensitive to issues of race and ethnicity (Kachru 1995, 291–292). These frameworks for understanding the function of language as social currency help illuminate why English has been appropriated by Sufi authors and publishers in the context of English-medium national education. In doing so, the authors and publishers both adopt English for social capital as well as reflect the pedagogical needs of their audience.

However, English in Singapore carries its own baggage, which inevitably colors the adoption of the language by Sufis. The foundation of numerous madrassahs in Singapore from the early twentieth century onward, beginning with the Madrassah al-Iqbal in 1907, reflects the Modernist ethos of education as a force for social dynamism (Aljuneid and Dayang Istiasiyah 2005, 252). Unlike the more traditional pondok (boarding school) and surau (prayer hall) of Singapore, which emphasized the authority of particular shaykhs and the importance of voluntary discipleship, submission, and rote memorization, these new madrassahs usually embraced a systematic approach to teaching traditional Islamic sciences alongside secular subjects such as science, mathematics, and languages other than Arabic (ibid., 253–254). English-medium instruction became part and parcel of Islamic education, and the primacy of English was further entrenched by the postcolonial state’s embrace of English as the primary medium of instruction across the national education system, imposing its regulations on madrassahs as well.

It is undeniable that the adoption of English as a medium of instruction came as a response to the pressures of colonial encroachment across the Muslim world. The Modernist madrassahs were statements of civilizational integrity; they served as symbols of Islamic intellectual dynamism and relevance even under the yoke of foreign political domination. By their existence they protested the encroachment of colonial discourses such as the infamous “myth of the lazy native” or the tendency in Orientalist scholarship to dismiss South and Southeast Asian Islam as syncretic (Alatas 1977; Laffan 2011, 115, 235). However, their adoption of English-medium education and secular subjects constituted the beginning of an irrevocable change in the educational profile of Singaporean Muslims; this represented the first step in a process of utilizing English that would be further consolidated by the postcolonial state’s imposition of English-medium education. Speaking “good” English has been fetishized by the postcolonial state as a form of civic virtue: communalism is dangerous, and therefore speaking a common language (English, the convenient detritus of colonialism) in all public discourse is the first line of defense against the descent into intra-ethnic conflict (Pakir 2010, 270; Rafael 2016, 100–103). This is inextricably tied up with discourses of Western civilizational superiority, a complex that haunts the Singaporean psyche because of the country’s peculiar decolonization experience. The use of English, then, is never truly neutral in Singapore; it is bisected by vocabulary and accent, syntax and grammar, into basilectal and acrolectal tiers that reflect the socioeconomic status of the speaker (Alsagoff 2010, 111). Singaporean Sufis’ use of English is likewise loaded, reflecting both the conscious attempt to appropriate a language of power, as well as an acknowledgment of the changing educational profiles and media consumption habits of Singaporean muridin.

Another aspect of Sufism’s engagement with English is its appropriation of English’s attendant knowledge structures, such as the perceived legitimacy embodied by Western academics who study Islam. Facilitated by the use of English, this engagement with Western academia suggests that producers of Sufi literature are able and willing to look beyond their turuq and their individual silsila, engaging with nontraditional knowledge and forms of legitimacy in order to enhance the legitimacy of Sufism as well as to cater to the diverse pedagogical needs of their trans-regional audiences. Articles published in the Indonesian journal Sufi regularly engage with Western academic work, and the journal itself carried advertisements for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam (Laffan 2011, 169). This enmeshment of Western academic and Sufi knowledge is also evident in Singapore: classic academic tracts such as J. Spencer Trimingham’s The Sufi Orders in Islam and R. A. Nicholson’s The Mystics of Islam (both in English) are available in various bookstores as well as the MUIS Resource Centre (Trimingham 1998; Nicholson 2006). Notably, the latter book has had its rights acquired by Malaysian publishers, who print and distribute it under their own imprint, attesting to its readership amongst Sufis in Malaysia and Singapore. Similarly, the 2011 Sacred Path of Love conference retreat saw Professor Zachary Wright of Northwestern University in Qatar invited to give a talk titled “Come Back to Allah: The Power of Dhikr” (Wright 2011).

“Rehabilitating” Islam through Sufism

Both in the United States and in Singapore, Naqshbandi-Haqqani shaykhs have positioned themselves as the “great renewers” (in the sense of prominent individuals who have periodically breathed new dynamism into Islamic religious praxis over the course of Islamic history) in an era of powerful new technologies, and have adopted English in the interest of reaching out to the greatest number in the most effective ways (Hanisah 2010, 42). The online pledging of bay’ah (allegiance) to a shaykh, lectures delivered on, and short lectures by Shaykh Zakaria, Shaykh Nazim Haqqani’s khalifa in Singapore from 1998 to 2009, conducted after dhikr, were all performed in English (ibid., 45). Furthermore, Naqshbandi-Haqqani shaykhs have expressed their view that preaching and publishing in English helps to bridge entrenched ethnic divisions within the Muslim community (the Chistiyya in Singapore, for example, are popularly thought of as a specifically Indian Muslim tariqa).

Moreover, post-September 11 Singapore has also presented opportunities for Sufi turuq: prominent Singaporean Sufis have defined Sufism in opposition to violent Islamic fundamentalism, manifest at the level of state institutions. The primary state-sanctioned organ for combating violent Islamic extremism has been the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), which prominent Sufis have participated in: “The co-chairpersons of the RRG committee, Ustaz Ali and Ustaz Hasbi, are local leaders of tariqa groups. Ustaz Ali is the local leader of the tariqa Qadirri wa Naqshbandi who holds their meetings at the Khadijah mosque. Ustaz Hasbi is the local leader of the tariqa Ahmadi Iddrisiyyah. A couple of others are also active tariqa members such as Ustaz Ibrahim who is the local leader of the tariqa Qadirri wa Chistiyya” (ibid., 67). In doing so, they have raised the public profile of their turuq, increasing their accessibility and legitimating Sufism via their cooperation with state imperatives. They also, however, have had to use English in their dealings with the state, and I would suggest that this has had a subtle but important impact on Muslims, as Sufism is increasingly brought into the public eye as modern, peaceful, and articulate.

The advent of Islamic scholarly literature being published in English by prominent intellectuals has also created a regional climate conducive for Sufis to adopt English. Muslim intellectuals with an activist bent, such as Nurcholish Madjid and Chandra Muzaffar (a Malaysian academic and activist), have published prolifically in English as part of their efforts to reconcile the Islamic intellectual heritage they champion with mainstream academic discourse, which is dominated by English. Internationally, Sufi authors such as T. J. Winter, who is a murid of the Ba’Alawi tariqa, and Osman Bakar, a Malaysian academic, have published widely in English (Osman 2007; Winter 2007). They have helped build a climate in which English-language publication of Islamic knowledge is both desirable and accepted.

In Singapore, this process of “normalizing” the expression of Islamic knowledge in English is exemplified by The Reading Group. A private circle of Muslim professionals and scholars, The Reading Group produces a wide range of pedagogical materials in English, published under the Reading Group Occasional Paper Series and the MUIS Occasional Paper Series (Saeed 2005; Azhar Ibrahim 2008). These materials are used primarily for private study in tabligh sessions but are also available in institutional collections such as the MUIS Resource Centre. The Reading Group also maintains a public presence digitally, in the form of the Leftwrite Center Facebook page. The Leftwrite Center, established in 2008, describes itself as “. . . an enterprise that aims to promote critical consciousness and civic social participation and awareness among young intelligentsia on various social and religious issues affecting Singapore society . . . [with a focus] on publishing and consultancy works.” It has approximately 400 followers and regularly posts links to Islamic scholarship on religious plurality, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue, all of which are in English (Leftwrite Center 2017). While the group is effectively bilingual in English and Malay, English-language material remains an integral part of the texts it studies and publishes, given the educational profile of most of its members: having been through an English-medium state education, many of them are comfortable with English.7) Intellectuals such as Muzaffar and Madjid, as well as organizations such as The Reading Group in Singapore, both reflect, and helped create, a climate in which the articulation of Islamic knowledge in English is acceptable and even desirable.

Part III Characteristics and Significance of English-Language Sufi Devotional Literature

Why should English be understood as a Cosmopolitan Vernacular in the sense that Pollock characterizes it? Pollock’s study of the relationship between Sanskrit and various South Asian vernaculars is concerned with “. . . not only how the vernacular reconfigures the cosmopolitan, but how the two produce each other in the course of their interaction” (Pollock 1998, 7). This is an accurate description of the manifold interactions between English and Arabic in the texts I analyze in this section. Building on Pollock’s insights, Ricci characterizes Islamic texts as being “written and rewritten in local languages” (in the case of Singapore, English, Malay, and Tamil) that were “profoundly shaped by the influx of Arabic”: in premodern and colonial Southeast Asia, this manifested itself in the numerous Arabic loanwords and syntactical changes to the Malay language in the production of Islamic texts (Ricci 2011, 3, 15). The linguistic composition of the sources examined here reveals that in contemporary Singapore, Arabic is used in conjunction with another lingua franca: English. These texts juxtapose English, Arabic, and transliterations of Arabic in the Roman script, evincing the continuity of Arabic’s function as a lingua franca that underwrites “a common repository of images, memories, and meanings that in turn fostered a consciousness of belonging to a trans-local community” (ibid., 3). In other words, Arabic functions as a shared language with an accompanying idiom that connects the transnational Muslim ummah through its use in a canon of Islamic texts, what Ricci calls a “shared literary network” and Pollock calls “sociotextual communities” (Pollock 1998, 9; Ricci 2011, 6).

I would argue that English has come to occupy a similar role as Arabic in the transmission of Sufi knowledge, while functioning in conjunction with Arabic. I would further posit that the relationship between Arabic and English is essentially diglossic: Arabic carries more weight, but both are used to powerful effect (Ricci 2011, 14). This finds expression in the multilingual character of the texts examined here. In them, English functions as a Cosmopolitan Vernacular, though not strictly in the sense that Pollock uses in relation to Sanskrit. English is deployed in juxtaposition to Arabic, to clarify and annotate the sanctity of the Arabic text of the sunnah. The Arabic original remains inviolate: the English frames it, providing a skeleton on which it may rest. It helps vernacularize Islamic knowledge, to the extent that it exposits the original Arabic, which many readers may have only an incomplete and partial understanding of. As a Singaporean vernacular, and a first language for many Singaporeans, English supports Arabic in transmitting Sufi knowledge; in doing so, it takes on the cosmopolitan functions of a lingua franca.

Devotional Literature Complementing Communal Rituals

Most commonly, Sufi devotional literature functions as a devotional guide in a ritual, communal context, such as dhikr, in which one might use a printed ratib to follow the recitation. According to my observations of the dhikr of various turuq, Rozehnal’s description of the Chistiyya-Sabiriyya’s use of devotional literature is applicable to Singapore. These materials are best understood as the discursive tradition of a tariqa, integral to the maintenance of spiritual/ritual discipline, which link muridin to a “sacralized Islamic past and [which] sacralizes the living present” (Rozehnal 2007, 129). They are used as sources of clarification and reinforcement in conjunction with a shaykh’s teaching and guidance from fellow muridin, functioning as “a constant, renewable source of supplementary knowledge and insight” (ibid., 162–166). Reading a text privately can also be an extension of the shaykh-murid relationship, an “act of conversation” between murid and shaykh in which questions that the murid would otherwise have asked his shaykh are answered in the course of reading (ibid., 165). Presently, muridin in Singapore fully recognize the importance of English texts, though without denying the continuing importance of Malay and Arabic and the primacy of the shaykh-murid relationship. A Tijaniyya murid had this to say regarding English devotional literature:

Printed materials are a strong support and while not obligatory are very helpful—you would need to refer occasionally to the Qur’an, compiled hadith, and the writings, poetry, and sermons of your shaykh. Online and print media makes this a lot easier . . . [English] is necessary for outreach and to acknowledge the age and its people—so they can access and approach knowledge of God. But as always, printed material is just content—it must be coupled with an experienced traveler or guide on the spiritual path who can give context to the seeker, how all this material applies in their daily life and struggles, whether in English, Malay, Arabic, Mandarin, or Zulu.8)

The supporting role that English text plays is evident in the Ratib al-Attas, a slim volume distributed by the Ba’Alawi tariqa for its weekly ratib recitations and available in both English and Malay versions, which clearly stipulates that the text be recited in transliterated Arabic (in Roman characters), with clear emphasis on sequentiality and oral enunciation (see Fig. 1). Notably, an English translation is provided throughout. Another way devotional literature is used is as a reference for personal dhikr. One such example would be The Evening Wird (pl. awrad), a text used by a small tariqa known as the Nur Ashki Jerrahi community in Singapore, which juxtaposes an interlinear Roman transliteration of Arabic and English translation of Arabic against the Arabic text itself (without the text broken up for easy recitation, as is evident in the Ratib al-Attas), while including instructions on sequentiality and repetition in English (Nur Ashki Jerrahi Community 2008) (see Fig. 2).


Fig. 1 Sayyid Muhammad Naqib al-Attas. 2007. The Rare Gift and the Key to Opening the Door of Union, pp. 12–13. Singapore: Ba’Alawi Mosque.



Fig. 2 Nur Ashki Jerrahi Community (anonymous author). 2008. The Evening Wird of the Illuminated Saint Pir Nureddin al-Jerrahi, pp. 4–5. New York: Deragh al-Farah.


Another devotional text used in communal rituals that is circulated in Singapore is Hizbu-l-Barr: Orison of the Earth, a formulaic prayer authored by the founding shaykh of the Shadhili tariqa, Ali Abu-l-Hasan ash-Shadhdhuli, published by the Virginia-based An-Noor Educational Foundation (affiliated with the Shadhili tariqa) and sold in Singapore by Wardah Books (ash-Shadhdhuli 1997). It opens with a geometric pictorial representation of the Ayatu-l-Kursi (ayat referring to a verse of the Qur’an) in highly stylized Arabic, with a short description of the ayat as a gateway to the hidden knowledge of the immanent, divine world and its puissance in fulfilling prayers when recited (see Fig. 3). Once again, Arabic is invoked in its role as the vehicle for the transmission of scripture, and the visual representation of the language itself is associated with the spiritual blessings that come from the message it carries, though the description of the ayat is in English and clearly meant for an English-speaking audience in the United States. Arabic is likewise integral to the text of the prayer itself; the text is split into boxed-up phrases (which indicates that it is used as a guide to recitation in a communal, ritual setting) in three versions: first Arabic, next a transliteration of Arabic, and finally an English translation of the Arabic phrase. Footnotes are included in English where necessary, to explain specific words that are transliterated even in the English translation to ensure fidelity to the complex concept being expressed. The handbook ends with a detailed guide to reading and pronouncing Arabic, which uses the Middle East Studies Association of North America system modified according to Hart’s Rules. Evidently the book draws upon Western modes of knowledge in conjunction with English to empower an audience of English-speaking Muslims to recite the prayer in Arabic. This constitutes an excellent example of how English and Arabic interact as lingua franca, each empowering the other, and testifies to the trans-regional nature of Islamic literary networks that see such texts being used in Singapore.


Fig. 3 ash-Shadhdhuli. 1997. Hizbu-l-Barr: Orison of the Earth, edited by A. N. Durkee, p. 34. Charlottesville: An-Noor Educational Foundation.


Writings of Regional Sufi Shaykhs

Devotional literature used by Singaporean Sufis also includes English-language materials published in South and Southeast Asia and meant specifically for regional consumption by “diasporic” Sufi communities. A good example of Sufi shaykhs’ work in circulation in Singapore is al-Munjiyath, published by Shaykh Thaika Shuaib Alim of the Aroosiyyatul Qadiriyya, a tariqa based in Tamil Nadu that has a significant regional presence in Thailand, Malaysia, and Hong Kong (Thaika Shuaib 2008). It was distributed in Singapore during the Sacred Path of Love conference, an annual Sufi conference that brings together regional muridin and shaykhs from various turuq, held at Masjid Sultan in 2011. Interestingly, the book opens with a brief English biography of the author on its cover, and the title page has the author’s name and credentials as follows: “Afdalul Ulama Asshaikh [ulama and Shaykh] Dr. Thaika Shuaib Alim, B. A. (Hons), M. A., Ph.D.”

The choice of language, the transliterations used, and the text’s invocation of Western academic credentials indicate that the engagement of Sufis with Western constructions of scholarly legitimacy as well as languages is operative in Sufi literature consumed in Singapore, even while Arabic is invoked to describe Islamic religious credentials such as ulama and shaykh. The text of the book itself, however, including the title page, is presented in three languages: English, Arabic, and Tamil, both interlinear and in sections organized according to language. The contents page, for example, is provided first in Tamil then in English, but not in Arabic. This is telling, in that while Arabic clearly remains important (legitimizing and familiarizing the text by invoking the language of scripture), the audience at which this book is targeted is more conversant in vernacular languages such as Tamil and English. Nevertheless, important sections of the book, such as the tariqa’s awrad and guide to du’a (invocation; part of the act of worship), are provided in Arabic as well as in Tamil and English (in separate sections). This illustrates the multilingual character of Sufi texts, a consequence of the changing educational profile of Muslims as well as the willingness of Sufi shaykhs to engage with English as a language of modernity and utility. The tariqa’s website for Singaporean muridin, (Taqwa being a contraction of the tariqa’s full name, Tariqatu-l Arusiyyatu-l Qadiriyyah), is also in English, with Arabic translations appended to most posts, especially on the many occasions when Sufi texts are quoted (Taqwa 2012). It also functions as an online bookstore, distributing physical copies of texts such as al-Munjiyath. Clearly, this transnational tariqa is comfortable in various languages and media, using them to mutually reinforce each other.

The contents of the book show that it is meant to be used in the context of personal devotion, as well as a guide to mundane issues and problems: the merits of the recitation of various Qur’anic verses are outlined in the first third; the second third is concerned with the elaboration of the tariqa’s precepts (such as “Recitals for the Mureeds of Aroosiyyatul Quadiriyyah”); and the final third lays out various formulations of du’a that, when recited a certain number of times in a particular sequence, address problems such as “[How] To Subdue Anger” (Thaika Shuaib 2008, 12–18). An important qualifier on how this book is used is found in the section titled “A Very Important Note,” which reminds readers that “it is not proper to assume that these recitals alone are sufficient to get your intentions fulfilled,” attributing agency instead to the grace of God and the guidance of one’s shaykh (ibid., 29). Evidently, while such texts function as a permanent link between the murid and the accumulated precepts of his/her tariqa, they remain in a supporting role to the shaykh-murid relationship. English, and in this case Tamil as well, serve as qualifiers of the Arabic text; they ease understanding, but always in deference to the primacy of the original Arabic.

Another example of a regionally circulated text authored by a Sufi shaykh is Tarbiatul Ushaq (the training of divine lovers), a collection of the speeches (malfuzat) given by Chisti Sabiri Shaykh Muhammad Zauqi Shah, compiled, edited, and translated into English where necessary by his disciples Shaykh Shahidullah Faridi and Shaykh Wahid Baksh Sial (Muhammad Zauqi Shah 2004). This text, like many other Chisti Sabiri texts, has substantial circulation in Southeast Asia, and it is written virtually entirely in English, with Arabic/Urdu words transliterated in Roman characters at selected points. While footnotes and citations are not used, a comprehensive index is included, and advertisements for other English-language A. S. Noordeen publications are appended. Clearly, in the Chistiyya-Sabiriyya the use of English is fully embraced as a necessity, and Western literary techniques of organization as well as business models are adopted in promoting the dissemination of Sufi devotional literature.

Materials Transmitted via Europe and North America

Two other examples of the writings of Sufi shaykhs, this time transmitted via Europe and North America, available at Wardah Books and the Darul Arqam bookstore, are The Book of Assistance and Counsels of Religion. Both were authored by the prominent eighteenth-century Yemeni Ba’Alawi Shaykh Abdallah Ibn’Alawi al-Haddad (hereafter Imam al-Haddad) and have been published in the United States by Fons Vitae, a subsidiary of the aforementioned Quilliam Press (al-Haddad 2003; 2010b). Both these texts are almost entirely in English and are obviously targeted at an English-speaking Sufi audience. Several features of these books, however, distinguish them from mere translations and illustrate the supporting role English plays in relation to Arabic.

Both books retain chosen words in transliterated Arabic, such as hulul, or incarnation, and ittihad, or union (al-Haddad 2010b, 27). The Book of Assistance italicizes and provides citations in Roman numerals where Imam al-Haddad quotes from the Qur’an, an example being “Do you think that We created you in vain, and that to Us you will not be returned? [XXIII:115]” (ibid., 32). This suggests that publishers of Sufi literature have appropriated Western literary conventions of organization for expediency as well as to familiarize their products for an English-speaking audience. At the same time, Arabic retains a central position as the original and irreplaceable language of Islamic knowledge transmission and continues to function alongside English and Western literary norms. This is supported by the retention of transliterated Arabic for ritual phrases, clearly meant to be spoken, that are embedded in the book: for example, “when you feel near to your orgasm recite within yourself, without moving your tongue: ‘Wa huwa’lladhi khalaqa mina’l-ma’i basharan’ [He it is Who created man out of water] [XXV:54]” (ibid., 57). At the same time, Western conventions that aid the English-speaking reader, such as detailed translator’s notes and a glossary, are provided at the end of the book. In Counsels of Religion, detailed footnotes and a bibliography are provided for the texts that Imam al-Haddad cites in the course of his writing. These two books are widely circulated among Singaporean Sufis; both books are bestsellers at Wardah Books, and the Ba’Alawi tariqa is arguably the most numerous and established in Singapore (Abaza 1997, 62).

Perhaps no other example illustrates the relevance to Singapore of the Sufi appropriation of Western conventions of scholarly legitimacy and languages better than The Doctrine of the Sufis by Arthur John Arberry, a translation of the tenth-century Sufi writer Abu Bakr al-Kalabadhi’s Kitab al-Ta’arruf li-madhhab ahl al-tasawwuf (al-Kalabadhi 1994). It was published by an Indian publisher, Kitab Bhavan, and, like R. A. Nicholson’s The Mystics of Islam and J. Spencer Trimingham’s The Sufi Orders in Islam discussed earlier, is an example of Sufis appropriating classic studies on Sufism to better represent Sufism to aspirants and muridin alike. The reprints of these classic studies are meant to enhance accessibility or familiarity—Arberry’s English-language translation of the text is certainly more accessible than the Arabic original for Singaporean readers—as well as a means of invoking the prestige associated with an English-language scholarly work on Sufism. Furthermore, the fact that a classic study of Sufism, with detailed footnotes and all the other conventions of academic works, was published in New Delhi and distributed in Singapore attests to the transnational literary network of Sufi literature that Singapore participates in as well as the prestige of English as a pedagogical medium for Singaporean Sufis.

A related example is The Mantle Adorned, a translation of Imam Busiri’s Burda (a poetic ode of praise for the Prophet), which juxtaposes each Arabic line of the poem against an English translation but also provides an accompanying English quote to each line—these quotes vary greatly in provenance, ranging from classical Sufi shaykhs such as Rumi to French littérateurs such as Victor Hugo (Abdal Hakim Murad 2009) (see Fig. 4). This is a text clearly directed at a Western audience, sometimes appropriating Western sources for both familiarity and prestige, printed to aesthetically resemble an illuminated manuscript, yet using English in conjunction with Arabic. The structuring of this text to suit Western sensibilities and increase its marketability evinces the appropriation of Western business and literary norms; at the same time, however, the Cosmopolitan Vernacular of English, in its role as a lingua franca connecting a global ummah, is clearly at work in conjunction with Arabic.


Fig. 4 Abdal Hakim Murad. 2009. The Mantle Adorned: Imam Busiri’s Burda, p. 78. London: The Quilliam Press.


Materials Produced in Singapore

Sufi devotional literature produced in Singapore and targeted at a local audience also evinces the use of English as a Cosmopolitan Vernacular. Taqwa and Knowledge, a translation of the first two sections of Imam al-Haddad’s al-Nasaih al-Diniyyah, was produced by The Islamic Texts for the Blind (Kitaba), a charitable Muslim organization from Britain that sold Taqwa and Knowledge as a fund-raiser. Taqwa and Knowledge contains a foreword by the prominent Ba’Alawi Shaykh al-Habib Hasan al-Attas, and the book was sold as a fund-raiser in Singapore. Taqwa and Knowledge is largely in English, but on the many occasions where Imam al-Haddad cites Qur’anic ayat in which the passive voice of God is invoked, the Arabic text is provided with an English translation below it. By contrast, ayat that are attributed to other characters, such as those of Jacob in surat Yusuf [Qur’an 12: 101], are provided without the accompanying Arabic (al-Haddad 2010a, 10). Clearly, Arabic remains closely associated not just with the Qur’an as a text but with divine revelation; it is subtly invoked as the language of God. English is used in this text in a diglossic relationship with Arabic; both are necessary to convey the message, but one has clear precedence over the other, even though English is the primary medium of transmission here.

Another locally produced text, the aforementioned The Grand Saint of Singapore, is a hagiography of the nineteenth-century Singaporean Sufi Shaykh Habib Nuh bin Mohammad al-Habshi, published by a local mosque and clearly targeting a local audience (Muhammad Ghouse 2008). In its many prefaces and forewords, it juxtaposes the original Arabic of the ayat against an English translation; the actual hagiography, however, apart from an Arabic ayat left untranslated at the end of each chapter, is entirely in English. The particular usage of Arabic and English in this text suggests that Arabic is invoked as a seal of legitimacy (the relevant analogue here is perhaps the practice of citation in academic writing) while the main message of the text is conveyed, according to the needs of the audience, in English. The use of Arabic ayat at the close of each chapter parallels the use of the stylized Ayatu-l-Kursi in the preface to Hizbu-l-Barr; it invokes the power of the Qur’an as the repository of God’s instructions to man, something intimately connected with the language, Arabic, used to convey those instructions. While acknowledging the pedagogical needs of a diverse ummah, these texts never lose sight of the importance of Arabic, and use it comfortably in conjunction with English.

Digital Media

Finally, Sufis’ appropriation of the Internet’s capacities for disseminating text, audio, and video resources, as well as the organizational capacities it affords them, highlights the importance of English as a vehicle for connecting disparate components of the ummah in powerful new ways. Online, English is the undisputed lingua franca, and the adoption of English goes hand in hand with digital media. Sufi websites, Facebook groups, mailing lists, and YouTube channels—overwhelmingly in English—collectively amount to a novel form of social attachment for Sufis, which supplements rather than undermines traditional forms of Sufi organization. The Naqshbandiyya-Haqqaniyya are an exemplar of Sufi willingness to use digital media in their service; websites such as allowed users to stream a video or audio recording of a weekly lecture by the tariqa’s senior shaykh, Nazim Haqqani, until his passing in 2014, with past lectures still hosted on the website (SufiLive 2012). The tariqa, through its publishing organs, the Islamic Supreme Council of America and the Institute for Spiritual and Cultural Advancement, also publishes transcriptions of these English lectures in print—the SufiLive series (ibid.).9) These texts are distributed in Singapore by Simply Islam, an affiliate that sells them through its online bookstore, as well as at public events such as the public lecture given by Shaykh Hisham Kabbani in Singapore in 2011 (Simply Islam 2012). Evidently, diverse formats of knowledge transmission are being employed, with online video/audio, printed books, and live lectures mutually reinforcing each other to better convey the Naqshbandi-Haqqani message to the greatest possible number.

The organizational opportunities provided by the platform of the Internet have been enthusiastically taken up by Sufis in general, including the Naqshbandiyya-Haqqaniyya. itself acts as a community organization resource, by allowing users to donate to the site to pay for its upkeep, and maintaining a regularly updated touring schedule of its major shaykhs. Similarly, Shadhili-Darqawi muridin in Singapore participate in transnational conversations with their fellow muridin via portals such as the South Africa-based Shaykh Zawia Ebrahim’s community page on Facebook (Zawia Ebrahim Community Page 2012). Other turuq use the Internet as a platform to host pedagogical text: the Shadhili-Darqawi-Qadiri Shaykh Abdalqadir as-Sufi, whose book The Hundred Steps is widely available in Singapore, has made some of his work available in full on third-party websites (Bewley 2012). Simply Islam has also offered explanatory courses on Imam al-Haddad’s and Imam al-Ghazali’s works (specifically, Counsels of Religion and The Books of Assistance), which were advertised on the Simply Islam website (Simply Islam Advertisement 2012a; 2012b; 2012c). These courses are an excellent example of how Sufi texts, media, and praxis are mutually constitutive: a taught course explicating a printed book that was organized and advertised on the Internet, all of which was done in English. English then serves to connect trans-regional communities of Sufis, from Egypt to South Africa to Singapore, from the twelfth century to the present, both online and in person, in a single discursive field. This cosmopolitan function is what drives the publication of English-language Sufi literature, but given the demographic, educational profile, and interconnectedness of Sufis around the world, English has attained the status of a vernacular language both within and outside Singapore.

Other Sufi organizations, such as Sout Ilaahi (, established in 2010, have matured as platforms for the digital propagation of Sufi knowledge and engagement with younger Muslims.10) The website is entirely in English and hosts various articles, including expositions on Sufi knowledge as well as exhortations encouraging Sufi praxis. It also serves the important function of facilitating and publicizing public events, usually noted scholars or shaykhs conducting workshops or public lectures. A recent example is that of a public lecture held at Masjid Sultan titled “When Adam Met Hawa: The Purpose of Creation” (Sout Ilaahi 2017a), given by Shaykh Mohammed Aslam, an imam from the British city of Birmingham. Sout Ilaahi not only publicizes talks by Anglophone Sufi speakers but also sells tickets to them; powered by Eventbrite, tickets for such lectures may be purchased on, which accepts a range of credit cards. It also includes a “Sponsor the Needy” option, which allows buyers to purchase tickets for those who would like to attend but cannot afford the entrance fee; a key part of Sufi praxis is compassion and almsgiving, which Sout Ilaahi facilitates. Here, Sufi engagement with English and digital media has served as a kind of force multiplier, enabling Sufi networks to project themselves to new audiences while maintaining their traditional sanctity and authority alongside a crisp, professional image.

Sout Ilaahi’s digital platform also serves as a means of structuring a disciplined and committed body of muridin across different turuq: since early 2017, Sout Ilaahi has disseminated an English-language biweekly digital newsletter via e-mail, titled Sanctity Within. This newsletter is disseminated in addition to topical e-mails advertising specific events or celebrating special occasions such as Ramadan. Sanctity Within represents unprecedented organizing capacity; where traditional Sufi networks of shaykhs and muridin would have been built around specific mosques, family lineages, and personal connections, Sout Ilaahi is able to maintain a recurring psychical presence in the minds of muridin outside of dhikr and hadra, a direct line of communication to muridin that complements traditional forms of Sufi organization. The mailing list keeps up a steady flow of links to articles such as “Volunteerism and the Sacred Path of Love,” an eloquent exposition of the spirit of sacrifice and service to others that is central to Sufi praxis, while soliciting volunteers to help organize the Sacred Path of Love conference (Abu Sofian 2017). Through the mailing list, subscribers may also access resources such as the transcript of a question-and-answer session at the end of a public lecture in 2016 held by a visiting shaykh, Shaykh Adeyinka Mendes of Atlanta, Georgia (Sout Ilaahi 2017b). Through the Sout llaahi website and mailing list, aspiring muridin may access what amounts to an incomplete but impressive archive of Sufi discourse in Singapore, a digital repository that allows them to benefit from past events that they missed or wish to refresh their memories of. The May 8, 2017 issue of Sanctity Within included a link to a transcript of a talk titled “Emptying the Heart: The Power of Dhikr” by Professor Zachary Wright, which he delivered in English at the Sacred Path of Love conference retreat in 2011 (Wright 2011). The mailing list also makes possible amplification of Sufi events, as in the following:

Good news everyone! We are going live on Facebook tomorrow with a lecture by Ustaz Amin! InsyaAllah Ustaz will be speaking on why Sha’ban matters for our Ramadan. He will also be taking questions from the audience. Do tune in and text your questions to 9140 4532.

Living with the Prophet: Why Sha’ban Matters for our Ramadan
Tuesday, 9 May 2017, 8pm
Watch it at our Facebook page. See you there! (Sout Ilaahi, Sanctity Within newsletter, May 8, 2017)

Publicizing Sufi events online is a well-established practice, but the facilitation of the transmission of Sufi knowledge down to the “last mile,” conveyed directly to the individual murid digitally in the comfort of his/her home, is a choice example of how Singaporean Sufis have embraced the opportunities afforded by digital media, which is partially predicated on the use of English. Clearly, the organizational opportunities and new modes of knowledge transmission the Internet offers have been enthusiastically appropriated by Singaporean Sufis, who use them in conjunction with more established vectors of knowledge transmission such as printed texts, as well as in new languages that reflect the pedagogical needs of their target audience.


This paper has demonstrated how, for a constellation of reasons, English has become an accepted medium of Islamic discourse, functioning in conjunction with Arabic in a diglossic relationship. By adapting Pollock’s framework, English can also be reasonably conceptualized as a Cosmopolitan Vernacular, a framework that helps illumine how English operates in transmitting Sufi knowledge alongside Arabic within a long-standing Arabic cosmopolis. English allows both shaykhs and turuq greater reach, facilitates access for muridin, and supports the pedagogical shaykh-murid relationship across linguistic, ethnic, and geographical boundaries. In Singapore, where actual literacy in Arabic—beyond the ability to recite the Qur’an in it—is rare even within the Muslim community, and many Muslims are comfortable reading English, these texts and resources constitute key elements in both autodidactic and pedagogical processes, reinforcing the relationship between shaykh and murid even if both parties are not in physical contact with one another. Moreover, this paper has highlighted Sufi print culture’s relationship with English and its adoption of new forms of digital media, examples of how Sufism has perpetuated its relevance in a rapidly changing world. By studying the genesis, characteristics, and functions of English-language Sufi devotional literature circulating in Singapore, this paper makes a small contribution to how Sufism in Singapore is understood in all its spiritual and textual richness. More broadly, this paper sheds light on some of the ways in which Sufism has negotiated the challenges and opportunities presented by new technologies, new languages, new media, and demographic changes within the ummah.

Accepted: August 8, 2017


The author would like to extend deep and heartfelt thanks to Zhafri Nasser, Ibrahim Tahir, Khalid Ajmain, and Shaykh Habib Hasan al-Attas for their generosity and their willingness to share their intensely spiritual experiences with him. Special thanks also go to Professors R. Michael Feener and Bruce M. Lockhart. This paper is an extension of the author’s undergraduate thesis research, originally conducted from 2011 to 2012.



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―. 2012c. The Way of the Worshippers., accessed March 17, 2012.

Sout Ilaahi. 2017a. About Us., accessed July 1, 2017.

―. 2017b. Q&A: My husband abuses me, but he’s good to me too. Where do I draw the line?, accessed July 2, 2017.

SufiLive. 2012. SufiLive., accessed March 17, 2012.

Tariqatu-l Arusiyyatu-l Qadiriyyah Worldwide Association (Taqwa). 2012., accessed March 17, 2012.

The Association for Spiritual Training (AST). 2012. Association for Spiritual Training., accessed March 17, 2012.

The Sacred Path of Love. 2012a. Sacred Path of Love., accessed March 17, 2012.

―. 2012b. Sacred Path of Love Community Page., accessed March 17, 2012.

Wright, Zachary. 2011. Emptying the Heart: The Power of Dhikr., accessed July 1, 2017.

Zawia Ebrahim Community Page. 2012. Wisdom of Shaykh Zawia Ebrahim., accessed March 17, 2012.

1) Here, Ahmadiyyah refers to the tariqa claiming spiritual descent from Ahmad ibn Idris al-Fasi (1760–1837), rather than the Ahmadi sect of Mizra Ghulam Ahmad. The Ahmadiyyah tariqa originated in North Africa but claimed adherents across the Muslim world. It is sometimes referred to as the tariqa Idrisiyya or the tariqa Muhammadiyyah (the latter should not be confused with the Modernist Islamic mass movement founded by Ahmad Dahlan in Yogyakarta, Java, in 1912).

2) Ibrahim Tahir, proprietor of Wardah Books, interviewed by Lin Hongxuan, Singapore, April 8, 2017.

3) Ibrahim Tahir, proprietor of Wardah Books, interviewed by Lin Hongxuan, Singapore, April 8, 2017.

4) Islamic Modernism refers to a historical movement in the nineteenth century in which reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–97), Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), and Rashid Rida (1865–1935) began the decades-long attempt to reconcile Islamic religious precepts and cultural values with “modern” ideas such as nationalism and “progress,” both technological/economic and sociocultural.

5) Personal communication, May 2011.

6) According to the Facebook page of the Naqshbandiyya-Haqqaniyya in Singapore, the tariqa has since 2014 renamed itself the Naqshbandiyya-Nazimiyaa in honor of Shaykh Nazim. Its weekly maulid and dhikr sessions at the Simply Islam premises are broadcast live via every Thursday, 8pm, GMT +8.

7) Personal communication, June 2011.

8) Zhafri Nasser, Tijaniyyah murid, interviewed by Lin Hongxuan, Singapore, July 10, 2017.

9) An example of a book in this series is Shaykh Muhammad Nazim Adil al-Haqqani, The Sufilive Series: Spiritual Discourses of a Sufi Master Vol. 1, ed. Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani (Fenton: Institute for Spiritual and Cultural Advancement, 2010).

10) Sout Ilaahi grew out of the Sacred Path of Love Facebook community page, which facilitated the eponymous annual conferences in Singapore.


Vol.5, No. 2, Ying-kit Chan

Contents>> Vol. 5, No. 2 

No Room to Swing a Cat? Animal Treatment and Urban Space in Singapore

Ying-kit Chan*

* Department of East Asian Studies, Princeton University, 211 Jones Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA

e-mail: ykchan[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.5.2_305

Since Singapore’s independence in 1965, the People’s Action Party government has launched an extensive urban planning program to transform the island into a modern metropolis. This paper discusses human-animal relations and the management of stray cats in postcolonial Singapore. In exploring the perceptions and handling of stray cats in Singapore, I argue that stray cats became an urban “problem” as a result of the government’s public-health regime, urban renewal projects, and attempts to fashion itself and Singapore for international tastes, and that cat activists are the main agents of rebuilding connections between animals and everyday urban life. In particular, I analyze how cat-welfare associations and individual citizens assume functions that the government has been loath to perform unless absolutely necessary.

Keywords: animal geographies, human-animal relations, cats, Singapore, urban space


Singapore, the “Garden City,” has undergone a massive program of urban reform, renewal, and resettlement since independence in 1965. The government of the People’s Action Party, which has enjoyed uninterrupted rule, dispersed the population of the overcrowded central-town district to peripheral “new towns,” which were built on land appropriated from old village communities. Through education, land reclamation, military conscription, and public housing, the government created a disciplined industrial workforce (now housed in flats built by the Housing Development Board, or HDB, and linked to factories and offices via highways) along Fordist lines, thus engineering tremendous changes in the human landscape of Singapore (Barr and Skrbis 2008; Chua 1997; Dobbs 2003; Loh 2007; Wee 2007). This massive control over space defined the postcolonial history of Singapore, whose modernity depended as much on facilitating motion as on preventing it (Netz 2004, xii).

Although historians have delineated the relationship between authoritarian rule, economic development, and social engineering in Singapore, they have been slow in integrating the work of geographers, who have addressed how landscapes, both material and immaterial, serve as cultural representations and social channels that foster and maintain the state ideologies of human progress and nation building. The government redeveloped the city center—now marked by skyscrapers and the reconstructed “racial enclaves” of Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India—to showcase Singapore’s global connectedness and historical legacies. It developed Marina Promenade and the banks of the Singapore River into a tourist attraction and up-market residential zone that appealed to expatriate executives and foreign visitors. It also created new art spaces such as the Esplanade (home to Theatres on the Bay) and renovated colonial landmarks and dilapidated shophouses to present Singapore as a vibrant arts and cultural hub worthy of admiration at home and abroad (Kong and Yeoh 2003; Chang et al. 2013; Ho et al. 2014).

In recent years, historians began to recognize the impact of the natural environment, and attempts to reconfigure it, on the economic, political, and social history of Singapore. They have established that the British colonial authorities and the postcolonial People’s Action Party government were interested not only in demolishing outdated structures and flattening the landscape but also in conserving heritage and preserving monuments and parks (including the Botanical Gardens, a new addition to UNESCO’s heritage sites as a “cultural landscape”) to promote scientific research, urban redevelopment, and the construction of a modern national identity (Barnard 2014; Blackburn and Tan 2015). Educated in English-language universities, Singapore’s leaders understood that modernization and national success emerged from urban industrial growth, as in the American and European historical experiences. To maintain economic and political legitimacy, they would need to succeed by these terms (Kwak 2008, 87–88).

Nevertheless, historians studying Singapore’s past have not picked up on animal geographies, which not only inquire into relationships between nature and society and how nature shapes human cultural practices, but also define animals as “central agents in the constitution of space and place, and all that entails” (Wolch and Emel 1998, xiii). The “power of geography” is unleashed when space constitutes, constrains, and mediates social relations. As Lily Kong and Brenda S. A. Yeoh elaborate, the power relations that define and contest the specificities of the Singaporean nation are negotiated through “elements of the cultural landscape, including the landscapes and practices of everyday life” (2003, 15). Specialists on Southeast Asia have conducted a fair amount of research on animal-welfare activism and the discursive and practical uses of animals in both colonial and postcolonial contexts. In particular, they have analyzed how wild animals such as tigers instilled fear that reshaped local practices and thrived in the popular imagination, and how domesticated animals such as horses and pigs were bred, constructed, and used (Boomgaard 2001; Bankoff and Swart 2007; Neo 2011). The humanlike orangutan, found only in Borneo and Sumatra, straddled the boundary between culture and nature, threatening the anthropocentric view of people who refused to define humans as animals (Cribb et al. 2014). In twentieth-century and modern-day Malaysia and Singapore, animal slaughter, which occurred as a result of the encroachment of residential development into animal habitats and the intervention of colonial and national laws in local cultures and trades, was revealed to be a contentious issue on moral, racial, and religious grounds (Yeo and Neo 2010; Yahaya 2015). That said, the existing scholarship on Singapore or Southeast Asia in general throws little light on human-animal relationships in specific urban settings, where human domination is absolute (animals are killed or subdued) and animals eke out a living in what is for them a “post-apocalyptic” world (Atkins 2012). As humans gain control over animals’ biological cycle (procreation, growth, and death) through culling and neutering, they also determine where (and whether) animals should live (Netz 2004, 15–16). This is especially true in cities, where humans and animals live in close proximity and have to compete for scarce living space, space that becomes “property” to which access can be limited.

By exploring the controversies surrounding human-cat relations in postcolonial Singapore, this paper examines how the People’s Action Party government, ordinary citizens, and social groups (mainly cat-welfare organizations) perceived the urban landscape, “with their own versions of reality and practice,” and perceived “conflicts over the production, definition, and use of space” (Kong and Yeoh 2003, 15). I argue that the government, which was far more interested in developing human resources than in harnessing animal ones, did not concern itself with the management of stray cats unless it received complaints or pressure from segments of the public, or unless a perceptible disease or health hazard arose from the presence of stray cats.1) In lieu of the government, which played the role of arbiter, cat lovers and haters (and self-professed neutral intermediaries voicing their opinions) collaborated with one another or counteracted one another’s actions, according to what they saw as significant at the time. The public—conventionally categorized into groups constituting civil society but actually defying any facile characterization—served as the main agents reconnecting cats with everyday life after an intensive phase of national development that alienated citizens from their ideals of and economic dependence on nature. As stray cats reemerged in the urban landscape, ordinary citizens and social groups endowed them with different meanings and came into conflict with one another over how to perceive and manage them. By acting as a neutral mediator, the government settled the differences with purportedly altruistic intent, but dominated the opposing camps as a result. Social forces gelled into fluid coalitions, but what linked them together was their concern for cats, which spawned a variety of configurations and interpretations of human-cat relations. Material and metaphorical boundaries created mental maps by demarcating urban spaces as domains of human dominance and cat subservience, but the boundaries were highly permeable and susceptible to animal transgressions (Yeo and Neo 2010, 682). Since stray cats are ubiquitous in Singapore but are seen as “out of place,” they are particularly interesting, having perhaps the greatest potential to disrupt cultural sorting systems (Holmberg 2015, 58).

This paper consists of a concise background of cats in Singapore, followed by three episodes concerning cats as pests, national symbols, and victims of cruelty. The three disparate episodes are productive because they disclose how stray cats became a problem as human-animal relations and state-society relations became spatialized owing to the government’s nation building, urban-redevelopment projects, and public-health regime.

A word is in order on the main cat-welfare activists under discussion—members of the Cat Welfare Society (CWS). The CWS was founded in 1999 by a group of volunteers concerned about the welfare of “cats living on the streets of Singapore.” It was registered as a charity in 2004. Run by volunteers, it does not receive regular funding, and most of its funds dedicated to outreach programs and cat sterilization is raised through public fundraisers and members’ donations and subscriptions. It prefers to call stray cats “community cats,” since it believes that their home is the human environment and pledges to “care for the nation’s cats.” Its main objective is “saving [cat] lives through sterilization.” It promotes the right of cats to be “represented accurately and humanely [and] be free of pain, fear, and suffering” (CWS, While some CWS members are wealthy and well-educated elite Singaporeans, membership has expanded over the years to include working-class people. It has no official patron in the government and suffers from a perennial shortage of funds (Straits Times, hereafter ST 2015). Nevertheless, by working closely with state agencies to resolve cat issues in local communities, it has considerable influence over state policies toward cats.

Roaming Singapore, 1960–80

Singapore achieved self-rule in 1959, and the People’s Action Party government perceived itself as inheriting an “environmental crisis” from the British colonial administration. Despite colonial efforts at urban planning, which were restricted to the central town, Singapore in the 1960s had one of Southeast Asia’s largest urban-slum and squatter populations, characterized by dilapidation, overcrowding, and inadequate infrastructure (Yuen 1996, 959).

As People’s Action Party rhetoric would have it, the kampongs (Malay for village) that dotted the rural landscape provided such deplorable living conditions that only a “planned programme of clearance and rebuilding” could render these settlements hospitable (Loh 2007, 8). Former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee (1973) associated colonial Singapore with “nasty things like mosquitoes, insects, snakes, and centipedes, quite apart from the likely absence of creature comforts such as running water, modern sanitation, electric power, and air conditioning,” which his government would offer to the people. A problem that Goh identified in the colonial economy was the lack of a “serious attempt to get the countryside into the grip of a dynamic modernization process,” which the government remedied by a “hollowing out of the central area” and colonizing the rural hinterland (Hee and Ooi 2003). As a result, as kampong dwellers abandoned their gardens and pets to move into new HDB flats, gone were the old kampong days when children caught fish in drains, kept crickets and grasshoppers in matchboxes, and had cats and dogs in their homes without restriction (Lim 1996). The Chinese in the kampongs used to consume dogs and rabbits, but they did not eat cats because “it is not of the right type for food” (Chan 1995). The HDB decided that the “keeping of domestic animals and poultry is unsuitable in housing estates where families live in close proximity to each other, particularly, in compact multi-storeyed flats” (HDB 1960, 47).

However, soon after the housing estates were built, the government realized that it “could not entertain the stark vision of a landscape of concrete structures devoid of greenery.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ruling elite launched an “urban beautification programme” to convert Singapore into a garden city of parks, trees, and open spaces, with the aims of providing recreational space for a growing urban population and attracting foreign capital (Yuen 1996, 957–965; Koh 2000, 40). The desire to “impose a rational order upon the relations created by the new productive system” took precedence over creating an affiliation with nature (Handlin 1963, 7–9). As a result of this embellishment of its model of development, the government preserved large tracts of forests for greenery and water catchment and left stray cats and dogs alone—at least for a while.2) In the open spaces of public parks, empty decks, and walkways of HDB flats, cats existed for human convenience and pleasure, a byproduct of an exercise of power that eliminated natural predators and threats to their survival and that created an unaesthetic landscape that called out for cats and greenery to adorn the HDB estates. Real affection for or coexistence with cats was impossible without dominance. Aggressive strays were reported, captured, and put down; only docile cats serving human aesthetics remained (Tuan 1984, 162–167).

The perception of stray cats and dogs had been negative in the central-town district. Street hawkers threatened public health with their improper disposal of food wastes, which fed strays thought to carry germs and spread disease (Yeo 1989; Kong 2007, 25–26). Throughout the 1960s, the HDB viewed hawkers as a “problem” and sought to relocate them to “modern and hygienic” hawker centers, where their activities could be monitored by officers of the Ministry of Health (HDB 1964, 49; 1965, 67; 1966, 60).

In Chinatown, residents blamed the ruckus that stray cats and dogs caused on a “thoughtless few” who turned their unwanted pets loose (Singapore Free Press 1960b). In the rural kampongs, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals collected stray cats and dogs in vans and founded a home for these “neglected animals” (Singapore Free Press 1960a). The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, known as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) after 1965, also set up kennels in churches for people to place unwanted animals in for collection (ST 1966). Some Singaporeans accused British servicemen of causing the problem of stray cats and dogs. The servicemen, after their brief sojourn in Singapore, allegedly released their pets to roam and spread danger and disease (ST 1968c)—a reminder of how medical discourse was adopted to legitimize animal exclusions and executions (Yeo and Neo 2010, 690)—although British residents vehemently denied such charges (ST 1968a; 1968b). The issue of stray cats and dogs remained outstanding throughout the 1960s as a result of bureaucratic inefficiency and a lack of resources to remove strays from the streets: police constables refused to handle the animals, and the SPCA and the Animal Infirmary (also known as the Veterinary Centre) did not operate on weekends (ST 1969).

Some Singaporeans had asked the Ministry of National Development to implement a policy of requiring cats to be licensed (ST 1971b). The ministry refused to do so, claiming that the number of stray animals collected by the SPCA had dropped by more than half—from about 3,000 a month in the 1960s to about 1,250 a month as of mid-1971. The SPCA attributed the drop to the “increasing awareness of Singaporeans to the problems of health and hygiene caused by stray animals.” Nevertheless, stray cats and dogs continued to roam free in parts of Singapore as a result of the move of large groups of people into flats, since former dwellers of the kampongs abandoned their pets when they moved to HDB estates. The SPCA petitioned the government to provide an emergency 24-hour service to pick up any injured animal in HDB estates, but the government replied that “there was no need to provide such a service since there were private veterinarians . . . who were available on call at any time” (New Nation 1971b). The Ministry of National Development contended that the problem of stray cats originated in irresponsible ownership, and refused to devote its allegedly scarce resources to provide anything more than the Veterinary Centre (ST 1971a). Animal lovers found it “more productive” to send strays to SPCA kennels because the staff of the Animal Infirmary just “would not bother” (New Nation 1971a).

The SPCA suggested that eating places and markets were leading “dumping grounds” for unwanted cats and dogs because people believed that the animals could survive on leftover food in such places (New Nation 1973), so the SPCA instituted a spaying program—which the government encouraged by reducing licensing fees for spayed dogs from 15 to 5 Singaporean dollars per year—for stray animals captured in these areas (ST 1973). The requests from the public for help in spaying their cats overwhelmed the SPCA, which stated that it could not “meet the spaying fees for an unlimited number of cats” because it had insufficient funds (ST 1974). A “division of labor” emerged with regard to the treatment of stray cats in the open dining areas of food stalls and markets: the Ministry of Environment launched campaigns for more hygienic food to be served in those places, while the SPCA controlled the stray-cat population to prevent “cats at these stalls [from] nibbling at dirty dishes.” Stray dogs, for some reason, did not roam the eating places and wet markets (ST 1975). Many Singaporeans recognized that the SPCA, despite a perennial shortage of funds and volunteer helpers, had done a “commendable job caring for thousands of stray animals in Singapore” (New Nation 1975). Other Singaporeans believed that aside from support from the government, the SPCA required more cooperation from the public itself (New Nation 1976b). They perceived HDB officials as having tried their best at directing hawkers in the outdoor dining places not to feed the stray cats there, albeit to no avail (New Nation 1976a).

Yielding to the complaints of cat haters, the HDB issued a controversial ban on cats in flats in September 1978, on the grounds that “by nature [cats] tend to be stray and can be a nuisance to other flat dwellers” (ST 1978c). This soon proved to be counterproductive: cats were turned out of their homes and became stray as a result of the ban, and the SPCA was overcrowded with cats (ST 1978a; 1978b; New Nation 1978). The SPCA continued its efforts to alleviate the longstanding problems of stray cats and the consequences of the HDB ban into the 1980s. The government never rescinded the ban and had left the public and the SPCA to assume the bulk of the responsibility of caring for stray cats and reducing their number. As if to exacerbate the problem, the government evicted the SPCA from the latter’s premises for redevelopment, and the SPCA had to raise funds to build an expensive new building elsewhere (ST 1981). Over the next decade, until the late 1980s, Singaporeans, as one cat lover put it, hate cats so much that they break and cut the tails of cats and “force them to survive in drainpipes” (New Paper 1988).

The Singapura Cat as a National Symbol

News came to Singapore on the last day of 1989 that Singapore’s alley or drain cats, introduced to the West as “Singapura” in 1975, had been winning awards and gaining championship status in global cat shows since 1981. The Singapura Cat attracted the attention of foreign cat breeders, who were keen on starting breeding programs for it, since it could fetch a price of US$1,500 in the market (ST 1989).

The Singapura Cat was first introduced to the United States by an expatriate couple, Hal Meadow and her husband, when they brought four stray cats home from Singapore. After several years, their program of selective inbreeding produced the Singapura. When Meadow returned to Singapore in 1987 to scour the streets for cats to replenish the gene pool in her program, she sought the help of the Singapore Cat Club (established in 1973), which had been sending her cats that fit the bill. According to the Singapore Cat Club, its aim was “to get the breed recognized worldwide and to help Singapura cat lovers breed the cat worldwide” (ibid.).

Within months, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board took its cue from the news and adopted the Singapura—touted as the smallest breed of cats in the Guinness Book of World Records—as an icon. In its project to “liven up” the Singapore River and promote the country’s image as a “City of Surprises,” the board erected a series of 25 sculptures modeled after the Singapura on the banks of the Singapore River. According to the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, the Singapura was chosen because of its “beauty and lively spirit” (ST 1990e). However, as soon as the news broke out, skepticism set in. Journalists asked the board how it would know whether the Singapura Cats flown in as models for the sculptures were genuine, and why it would not “pick up a couple of stray Singapura Cats off the street” instead. They also commented sarcastically that the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board was about to get writers “to pen glorious stories about the Singapura Cat,” and questioned why the lion or singa (which gives Singapore its name) was not featured in its place for greater “authenticity” (ST 1990d). In light of how Singapore’s media system had been structured from its inception to “provide maximum freedom of maneuver for the [People’s Action Party] government,” these comments were bold, candid, and direct for the milieu in which they appeared (George 2012).

Journalists were not the only ones who expressed reservations. Ordinary citizens felt that “Singapore should not lay claim to the [Singapura] unless it was bred out of [Singapore’s] drain cats.” To complicate matters, the Cat Fanciers’ Association, the top cat-breeding authority in the United States, was considering revoking the status of the Singapura as a pedigree owing to lingering doubts over its origins. Meadow had not been able to explain the irregularities in her accounts of how she bred the cats, which might have originated in the United States. As one concerned respondent remarked, “What’s the point [of adopting the cat as our own]? The cat is only of significance to us if it [is] from our drain cats. Now that they are not sure of its origins, it might have nothing to do with us, except for its name” (ST 1990b). Nevertheless, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board proceeded with its project centered on the Singapura, although amid the controversies it did put on hold the decision to adopt the cat as its mascot (ST 1991b).

Upon confirmation by the Cat Fanciers’ Association that the pedigree status of the Singapura would remain unchanged and the association’s suggestion that the board accept the breed as Singapore’s own, the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board adopted the Singapura as its mascot and called it the Kucinta (a blend of two Malay words: kucing for cat and cinta for love) in a bid to capture the “warm, affectionate nature of the cat” and “indigenize” it (ST 1990a). The Kucinta was then made into sculptured porcelain cats to be presented as gifts to foreign delegates and ministers (ST 1991a). The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board hailed the Singapura as a “National Treasure” (Helgren 2013, 257). Despite years of promotion, however, Singaporeans did not regard the Singapura as their national symbol. The main reason was that the Singapura remained a breed hardly seen in people’s everyday lives, in the drains or on the streets. For most Singaporeans, the Singapura existed only as a stiff sculpture. It became embarrassing to the Singapore Cat Club when it received requests from Europe and Japan for the cat, for Singapore did not have any Singapura, which remained an extremely rare breed based in the United States. Although the Singapore Cat Club managed to purchase a pair from an American cattery and the Singapore Tourism Board (successor to Singapore Tourist Promotion Board) continued to promote the Singapura, Singaporeans were hardly enamored by its rare status and kept a distance from it.

According to the CWS, Singapore’s drain cats are “smaller, have funny knots in their tails, and do not have the prominent ‘M’ on their foreheads, unlike the Singapura.” Another group, the Animal Lovers League, did not see the point in bringing in the Singapura: “The Singapore cat should represent the local cats. They should be the sons of our soil, not imports, not man-made [or] cloned” (ST 2003j). A reader of The Straits Times backed the Animal Lovers League, requesting both the Singapore Tourism Board and the Singapore Cat Club to “get real” and remove the misleading sculptures: “In whose memory will these non-existent cats, claimed to be produced by an American breeder using three strays she had found in Singapore, live on, and why should they be represented as Singapore icons” (ST 2003i)?

The Singapore Tourism Board apparently overlooked these concerns when it decided to host four Singapura Cats (which by then survived only in the homes of pet owners in Singapore and abroad) in the Singapore Zoological Gardens to celebrate National Day in 2004. The rationale was to give all citizens a chance to see the rare, pure-bred “national symbol” (ST 2004). The Felidae family of cats was no stranger to Singapore’s national imaginings. Its members are featured in the National Coat of Arms, Singa the Courtesy Lion, and the Lionhead symbol on official documents. Although citizens had accepted these symbols, they rejected the Singapura, signaling a refusal to see matters as the state sees them and a passive resistance prompted only when asked. At best, Singaporeans identified the Singapura as another governmental initiative, albeit a futile one, to embellish the nation with a Guinness World Record. At worst, they associated the cat with bourgeois culture, as only affluent households could afford to import and keep one. Some cat breeders even called the Singapura “a money-making scheme” (Helgren 2013, 257). As with the Merlion, the Singapura’s status as a tourist attraction works against its role as an organically evolved national symbol (Kong and Yeoh 2003, 158).

Ordinary citizens and cat associations (except for the Singapore Cat Club) distinguished drain cats and Singapuras. They insisted that the cats most representative of Singapore were found in the drains and streets (“drain cats” and “stray cats” are synonymous for them), not in the tourist attractions along the Singapore River or in the Singapore Zoological Gardens. This takes on even greater symbolic significance if we consider that drain cats had hidden and taken shelter in the sewers to escape from human persecution at a time when national development was most intense in the 1970s and 1980s (Morris 1999, 185). Although it would be stretching the narrative too far to argue that Singaporeans had anthropomorphized themselves into drain cats that survived the fast pace of economic development, the allegory is too striking to dismiss. Unlike the Singapura, the origins of drain cats are not mired in controversy: most breeders and pet owners accept the drain cat as more Singaporean, against what state agencies had wanted them to believe (ST 2003j).

The Singapore Tourism (Promotion) Board (and to a lesser extent the press) sought to construct an indigenous mascot contrary to reality. The episode of the Singapura Cat as a national symbol offers insight into how state institutions attempt to blend notions of authenticity and familiarity with universal appeal for consumption by the international community. The Kucinta saga was an “invented tradition,” whose authenticity is less in evidence than is popularly supposed, and where change is disguised or “mistakenly perceived as adaptation” (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Cannadine 2008, 315). The Singapore Tourism (Promotion) Board, promoting the cat as a somewhat refined breed of local drain cats that was “uniquely Singapore” (the tagline of the Singapore Tourism Board’s destination brand from 2004 to 2009), chose to overlook the controversy of the origins of the Singapura Cat. Seeking to find features that could apply to Singapore or that only Singapore possessed, the Singapore Tourism (Promotion) Board ignored common drain cats and refused—against what the populace had chosen to believe—to acknowledge these cats as a national symbol. The official perception of stray cats as common, dirty, and hence unworthy of national recognition was challenged, and the division of urban spaces in the popular imagination reflected divergent views held by state and society.

SARS Kills the Cat

In 2003 a massive culling of stray cats, known as the “SARS cat-culling incident,” took place in Singapore (Davis 2011, 183). To be sure, the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) conducted annual cullings of cats to keep the stray population under control. Every year, about 10,000 to 13,000 stray cats were put down (AVA 2003b). However, after the SARS outbreak, which killed 31 people out of 206 reported cases within three months, the AVA looked set to intensify its efforts at culling stray cats. The National Environmental Agency began to disinfect and fumigate food stalls and food (or hawker) centers—the perceived hotbeds of viral infection (Associated Press 2003e). Although former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan mentioned that cats and dogs ran no risk of getting infected and that the SARS coronavirus was not known to cross species (ST 2003h), The Straits Times ignited debate when it placed a cartoon illustration on the front page captioned “Don’t leave food in the open for stray animals” next to the “Reports on SARS” header. The CWS was disappointed to see the cartoon, which depicted a cat eating a meal and excreting what looked like a virus, arguing that such cartoons would “unduly alarm the public” at a time when many animals were being abandoned by owners fearful of SARS. The CWS ended its statement by saying that the cartoon might “undermine the Government’s efforts to get people to live their lives as per [usual]” (ST 2003g). True to its fear, many Singaporeans came to believe that cats and dogs spread the SARS virus.

After three cases of SARS were linked to the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, the AVA put down 100 stray cats and dogs there. The AVA maintained that putting down the 100 strays was part of its annual routine practices, which had nothing to do with SARS. Yet with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that it had everything to do with SARS. Dr. Ngiam Tong Tau, Chief Executive Officer of the AVA during the SARS period, recalled that the AVA knew little about SARS and was “really afraid because [there were] a lot of stray cats in Singapore.” AVA executives, assuming that the SARS virus resides in cats, decided to cull cats at the Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre and perform postmortem examinations of them to isolate and find out more about the virus. The AVA set up a temporary postmortem site in Sembawang, a remote area in northern Singapore, and collected stray cats from all over Singapore to confirm whether the SARS virus had infected the cat population. The finding was negative, but the AVA did not reveal that to the public for fear that the finding was still not conclusive (Ngiam 2007). The AVA’s actions came in tandem with an increase in the number of abandoned cats and dogs, as reported by the SPCA (ST 2003f).

Animal-protection groups monitoring the number of cats and dogs in HDB estates reported that town councils had moved in to intensify the campaign to kill stray animals, “mainly cats.” The CWS entered the fray again and condemned the actions of the AVA and town councils, but the authorities continued to claim that they had intensified the culling of stray cats in housing estates, food centers, and wet markets as part of the “Singapore’s OK” program to clean up the environment and improve public hygiene. When the CWS criticized that such actions added to the public hysteria over stray cats, governmental agencies retorted that cat lovers were being paranoid about their routine (Channel News Asia 2003). At their wits’ end, cat lovers took the rescue of stray cats into their own hands. The Animal Lovers League gathered more than 2,000 stray cats and planned to send them to a cat shelter in Johor, Malaysia, but Malaysian officials refused to accept the cats into the Johor shelter, saying that Johor is not the place to cast off stray cats. For its part, Singaporean customs refused to issue export permits to the Animal Lovers League for stray cats (Associated Press 2003c; 2003d). As the episode unfolded, the Ministry of National Development intervened, declaring it a problem that all involved parties would solve “internally” “with the help of the animal welfare groups in Singapore” through consultation and reconciliation (ST 2003e).

The Animal Lovers League proposed the alternative plan of building a cat shelter next to an existing private kennel in a remote part of Singapore (Dow Jones International News 2003). Journalists and readers backed the plan, arguing that the government had neither consulted nor worked closely with the public, but rather had unilaterally halted the Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme, in which volunteers collected stray cats for spaying before returning them to their environments, in favor of removing stray cats amid the SARS scare (AVA 2003a). Although the AVA reasoned that the scheme had not worked in several town councils, cat lovers countered that the AVA’s website stated that culling by pest control companies “removes cats that are easily caught, leaving the wilder and often more prolific cats to continue to multiply . . . , [producing] immediate, short-term results but the results are temporary.” Using the AVA’s own logic, animal-protection groups urged that governmental agencies return to the scheme to rehabilitate rather than eradicate stray cats (ST 2003d).

As the government was deliberating on the groups’ proposals, some 80 people gathered in a meeting room at a five-star hotel to mourn an estimated 700 cats exterminated by the authorities. Reports had it that “many of the lawyers, engineers, and executives present wept openly.” Because all gatherings require a permit and speakers must seek police approval in Singapore, the mourners decided to hold a “private” memorial at the hotel. Animal activists said that they feared laws used for years to limit demonstrations by political opposition groups could be used against them if they make their opposition to the cat culling “too public.” Meanwhile, a coalition of animal-protection groups began selling 1,000 T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Kill Ignorance, Not Animals,” to raise funds for building a cat shelter managed by the Animal Lovers League and having capacity to accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 stray cats. Most animal lovers, however, preferred more passive forms of protest, such as signing Internet petitions and encouraging their friends to wear blue ribbons in support of stray cats. They also rescued strays by rounding them up at night and caring for them until a home could be found. Thus, by resorting to “routine channels of voicing disagreement,” animal lovers circumvented strict protest laws to express their anger (Associated Press 2003b). These upper-middle-class, white-collar professionals, while politically acquiescing to the government, could navigate laws on public assembly by knowing the “permissible boundaries” or “gray areas” of these laws and by acting within established political perimeters so as not to offer a direct challenge to state authority (Chong 2005). They mobilized their resources to create an alternative discursive space to express their opinion.

In the face of mounting public pressure, the government relented by auctioning off land for animal shelters, hoping to appease animal lovers. The AVA announced that it would open up five one- and two-acre lots “for long-term boarding purposes” for the animals, stating that any group with “proven experience in taking care of and/or providing boarding for pet animals may bid for the land” (Associated Press 2003a). By mid-June, the AVA had picked up and tested the last of 140 stray cats, declaring them SARS-free and clearing the “cloud of suspicion over cats.” This occurred after Singapore was removed from the World Health Organization’s list of areas infected with SARS on May 31 (ST 2003a).

To the cat lovers in Singapore, the government seemed to have confused civet cats—the alleged host of the SARS coronavirus—with “real” cats. They were frustrated that the government, in its “cleanliness” campaign, had targeted only cats caught near markets and other “neighborhood” places that served food (Associated Press 2003d). In essence, in the nation’s battle against SARS, the government was extending its power into the urban spaces of the commons—the food stalls, hawker centers, and wet markets—claiming that they were unhygienic. As state agencies moved in to reclaim these spaces on the pretext of health exigencies, animal-protection groups harnessed their finances and manpower to found new spaces for persecuted cats—a hotel ballroom for pseudopublic mourning, a transnational shelter for rescued cats, and private homes to house cats temporarily. When all their endeavors failed, these groups launched their own campaigns to raise public awareness of the plight of stray cats and the excesses of culling, hoping to galvanize public support to “exonerate” the cats. They succeeded. The removal of Singapore from the World Health Organization’s list was a major contributing factor to the government’s compromise. But more important to their success was that the government did not want to risk facing further challenges to its structural parameters if it appeared too unyielding, especially in light of citizens’ attempts not to flout the law or confront the state apparatus. The government associated its legitimacy with the ability of approved groups and individuals to seek redress or solutions through the “proper channels” of formal institutions. The cat-welfare groups had done everything within their means to fulfill this unspoken criterion, leaving the government little maneuver space in which to act.

Over the years the government has invoked Singapore’s victory against SARS as, in Lee Kuan Yew’s words, a display of “inner ruggedness” and national unity in adversity (Channel News Asia 2005). The conventional view was that the SARS crisis and the common experience of facing the crisis had strengthened political and social solidarity among Singaporeans. Yet in the eyes of cat lovers, the SARS episode was a human war against scapegoated cats, a unity abused and a ruggedness misplaced. The episode exposed the vulnerability of animal-protection groups, cat activists, and stray cats in a context of limited legal and social safeguards for them. As Frank Furedi observes, “People do not simply suffer a disaster. They interact with terror and emergencies, often adapt to it, draw lessons and meaning from it, sometimes are disoriented and confused by it but often learn to creatively reorganize their life around it” (2007, 171). As cat lovers came to terms with their vulnerability and forged their own solidarities against a national unity that the government had appropriated to cull stray cats, they showed that trust in the government had been lost with regard to the management and regulation of stray cats, and that collective action had to be taken to provide cats with more protection and welfare.

Speaking for Cats

The CWS, the most vocal cat lovers’ group in Singapore, was established years before the SARS outbreak, in 1999, but it was from the 2003 crisis that the CWS first gained prominence. The CWS was set up by “upwardly mobile professionals” who “invest their time and energy in saving what appears to be an unimportant sector of the Singapore populace”—stray cats. Alluding to the growing incidence of animal cruelty in Singapore—burning kittens alive, throwing cats from high-rise buildings, and governmental agencies’ culling 13,000 stray cats every year from 1980 to 2000—the CWS resolved to promote tolerance for and understanding of stray cats among Singaporeans in line with the government’s persistent call for a more gracious society, adding that “kindness to animals could be a part of the school curriculum in Singapore.” The CWS aimed to forge a strong network devoted to the rescue of distressed cats and sterilization of stray cats (ST 2000a).

The SPCA, inspired by similar schemes in Britain, Canada, and the United States, had been promoting sterilization as a “humane way of controlling the stray [cat] population compared with destroying them” since the 1990s. This began as a response to increasing complaints among residents of HDB estates that cats had been rummaging through rubbish bins and had left uneaten food all over the place (ST 1994b). Critics argued, however, that “plentiful food sources and kind cat lovers” had indulged the cats and impaired their “natural instincts” to “make themselves useful by preying on rats, pigeons, and numerous scavenging birds that equally scourge city environment.” The critics also believed that stray cats “co-exist with the lot [of animal pests] to compound the vermin problem,” so they urged the authorities to round up strays, put them to sleep, and ensure quick and proper disposal of their carcasses (ST 1994a). Although veterinarians reassured the public that most strays do not carry germs, animal-welfare groups felt enough pressure to induce them to step up controlling stray numbers with the aforementioned Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme. The scheme, which started in 1998, had both supporters and detractors. Food-stall owners, rather than discarding leftovers, preferred feeding them to the cats. In contrast, residents saw such practices as emboldening cats to wander into the “human spaces” of coffee shops (kopitiams), food centers, and wet markets (ST 2000b). After abandoning the scheme during the SARS period, the AVA turned to culling strays, educating pet owners not to abandon cats, and advising animal-protection groups to house cats at their own expense (ST 2014f). For its part, the CWS started approaching individual town councils and, as of August 2014, had been working closely with 16 of them to reduce the culling (New Paper 2014).

From 2003 to 2014, the main object of the CWS and several cat-focused organizations was to reestablish the Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme. Cat sterilization was never outlawed; the government might have withdrawn from the scheme, but cat-welfare groups were free to conduct it at their own expense. Owing to their limited resources, however, these groups hoped that the AVA and town councils would return to the scheme and mobilize sterilization to greater effect. Stating that sterilization remained the most effective method in controlling the stray-cat population, the CWS, in its capacity as the only registered association in Singapore for cat welfare, linked nonofficial groups together, holding true to the Singapura’s name of Kucinta (“Cat-love”) against the backdrop of increasing cat violence in the nation. The CWS distinguished itself from the Singapore Cat Club, which it said “organizes [only] shows and gatherings” (ST 2000a). The CWS relied on donations and worked with 28 veterinary clinics to help sterilize about 400 to 600 stray cats annually (ST 2012). The CWS also encouraged the public to adopt its sterilized cats with “value-added guidance” from affiliated cat-welfare groups. On one occasion, it stepped in to remind the public not to be enticed by a specific puppy sale coupon “with 0 percent installment plan” in the National Day Parade pack (distributed to each parade spectator), arguing that such coupons would only promote irresponsible pet ownership (ST 2014e).

Beach Road Cat Killings

Here I will briefly introduce a particular episode—the serial cat abuses at Beach Road—to explore the workings of the CWS and concerned groups and individuals in the 2010s, after such groups had expanded in scale, scope, and strength since the 2000s. Beginning in late 2011, a spate of cat abuses occurred in a cluster of flats along Beach Road, with cats being lacerated, flung down to their deaths, and decapitated (Save Beach Road Cats, September 27, 2011; October 27, 2011; September 2, 2012). Some cats suffered from sling shot wounds. Others were blinded (Save Beach Road Cats, December 10, 2012). Abuses were also reported in the immediate vicinity of Kampong Glam and North Bridge Road, causing considerable distress among cat lovers (Save Beach Road Cats, January 16, 2013; February 19, 2013; February 24, 2013).

That the abuses continued for years without one person being arrested, interrogated, or investigated added to the cat lovers’ frustration, particularly in a nation that prided itself on having a highly efficient police force and a low crime rate. As a result of police inactivity, cat lover Anthony Hong set up the Save Beach Road Cats website in late 2011 to raise awareness and appeal for information. Hong, who owned a sundry shop in the area, first noticed the deaths after meeting with elderly people who were feeding Beach Road’s stray cats. These elders, according to Dr. Ngiam (2007), were individuals who wanted to earn good karma by feeding stray animals but did not clean up the mess after feeding, which attracted cockroaches and rats to the neighborhood and hence caused conflict between themselves and other residents. Although the elders lodged police reports about one elderly man seen “shooting stones at cats with a catapult,” the police did not act on the reports. Hong hired a private detective to check on the elderly man in question, but this did not unearth any evidence; the police stated that they could arrest the man only if presented “concrete photo or video evidence” (ST 2014d). An elementary school student, motivated by Hong’s efforts, offered all his savings of 2,000 Singaporean dollars as a reward for information on the cats’ deaths (ST 2014c). Meanwhile, some residents on North Bridge Road sent a carcass to the AVA, requesting a postmortem on it to determine the cause of death; the results were not forthcoming (Xinming Ribao 2014).

The CWS reached out to the Beach Road cat caretakers (Save Beach Road Cats, “Background”). CWS executive officer Joanne Ng shared their frustration: “Why are the authorities not doing anything about it. . . . If the person who is doing all this harm ends up murdering a small kid . . . , it would be too late” (Yahoo News 2014). Hong (Save Beach Road Cats, September 18, 2014) also lashed out at the platitudes of the authorities, maintaining that actions speak louder than words: “How . . . can the government’s stance on animal abuse be taken seriously if . . . swift resolutions are only reserved for major crimes like murder and robbery, and even lesser offences like killer litter and illegal parking?” That said, in 2014 the CWS, along with other animal-welfare groups, managed to pull Law and Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Member of Parliament Yeo Guat Kwang to their side in recommending harsher penalties on perpetrators of animal cruelty, and Parliament went on to amend the Animals and Birds Act to impose stiffer penalties on animal abusers (Today 2014; ST 2014a; 2014b). To give some background, Shanmugam had been a longtime supporter of the CWS, having initiated Pilot Cat Ownership to ensure that cat owners in his ward get their cat sterilized, microchipped, and registered with the society (CWS 2012).

However, no one had yet been held accountable for the 50 cruel cat deaths along Beach Road, although the aforementioned elderly man remained the primary suspect. In his own defense, the man confided in the Chinese press that he was now a target for harassment for a crime he had never committed (Lianhe Wanbao 2015a; 2015b). While the CWS could pull politicians into its fold, individual, unorganized cat lovers failed to elicit sufficient police or institutional support to nab the stray-cat killer(s) along Beach Road.

The additional legal provisions coincided with the quiet extension of the Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme earlier in mid-2014. In 2011 the AVA attempted to partially relaunch the scheme, but the town councils did not welcome the directive because they “did not want to clean up after the cats.” To be precise, the town councils did not want to pay to control, feed, and sterilize stray cats in their jurisdictions. After a three-year trial in four precincts, the AVA decided to reinstate the scheme in full, and this move drew praise from animal-welfare groups, which had all along maintained that culling was inhumane and ineffective. The groups cited the drop in stray-cat numbers from 80,000 to 50,000, along with the fall in culling figures, as evidence that sterilization worked. Another sign of success, they stated, was that the AVA euthanized about 1,000 strays in 2013, down from 3,300 in 2008 and 13,000 in 2001. In addition, the CWS reported that its volunteers had helped sterilize 4,479 cats in 2013 alone, showing that it was fully capable of working with the AVA and the town councils at cutting costs while dealing effectively with the issue of controlling the stray-cat population. Under the scheme, the AVA funded half of the cost of 30 to 60 Singaporean dollars to neuter a cat (trapping, neutering, and releasing cats to control the population of stray cats without killing them) and another 20 Singaporean dollars to microchip it. Now with added funding and endorsement from the AVA, the CWS felt confident of reducing the number of stray cats across Singapore and hence of silencing calls for cats to be killed (ST 2014f). The Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme was made possible by some AVA executives led by Dr. Lou Ek Hee, who, against the opinion of their “hawkish” colleagues, believed that the scheme could work in keeping a “manageable group of cats in a precinct which is also good for catching rats,” on the condition that they “do not interfere with people, do not cause nuisance, defecation, jumping on people’s cars, [and] scratching the paint work” (Ngiam 2007). The lack of consensus within the AVA may help explain the inconsistency in its policies toward the treatment of stray cats.

As the former Nominated Member of Parliament Eugene Tan suggested, the People’s Action Party looked “more humane and less fixated on bread-and-butter concerns” with its members of Parliament pushing for “non-traditional” causes in recent years. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also observed that People’s Action Party activists were reaching out to more diverse groups, including animal-welfare groups, which had been neglected in the past. After the 2011 General Elections, in which the People’s Action Party lost a substantial share of votes to opposition parties, People’s Action Party members of Parliament seemed to have become responsive to “emerging areas” of concern such as animal welfare, and sympathetic to “less combative” and “less defiant” causes. This does not mean that the heightened support for social causes was all for show. Nevertheless, as Tan observes, some issues, unlike controversial or polarizing ones such as gay rights or migrant workers’ rights, were easier to support so as to appear in touch with the people. To People’s Action Party members of Parliament, lending support to certain causes could increase their popularity among voters (ST 2014a).

Failing to co-opt social groups can result in the expression of political dissent on social media. Vivian Balakrishnan, formerly the Minister of State for National Development overseeing the AVA during the SARS epidemic, was accused in a Facebook post during the 2015 Singapore General Elections of having conducted a “cat holocaust.” The post quickly garnered more than 2,000 “likes,” with comments condemning Balakrishnan’s “act of cruelty” (Facebook 2015). Because it is “accumulative, publicly accessible, and practically permanent,” the Internet poses challenges to the authoritarian structure of the government, allowing disgruntled citizens to access information, express opinions, and share insights outside the scope of conventional media and the state’s censorship regime (Tan 2015, 277). When the SARS epidemic broke out in the country in 2003, most Singaporeans remained unexposed to Internet-based social media, and expressions such as “cat holocaust” were never used against any minister in Singaporean reportage.

The physical landscape of Singapore, which is increasingly built up, also contributed to growing attention to human-cat issues. Fundamental to these issues was the question of whether stray cats should share the urban space of humans. The controversy over such issues was essentially an ideological struggle over the intrinsic value of cats, a debate over the place or role of cats in both natural and manmade landscapes (Neo 2014, 73–74). Disagreement among HDB residents required the intervention or mediation of the government and cat-welfare groups for a conciliatory resolution. Disputes over spatial arrangements—whether cats should perish for transgressing into human territory, and whether cats and humans could cohabit in HDB estates—revealed that power structures and reciprocal interactions were inherently spatialized (Pearson and Weismantel 2010, 26).


Cats are a synecdoche for the complex relationships between the government, cat-welfare groups, and HDB residents in the state project of reintegrating nature into the urban landscape. Postcolonial Singapore is a space of state intervention into private domains that parades under the universal guise of national development, with the state suppressing spaces for politically marginalized groups or individuals (King 2003, 178). Nevertheless, as cat lovers and cat-welfare groups have shown by their actions, there is always room to contest such metanarratives and offer alternatives on the basis of one’s “local knowledge” (ibid., 179). Human responses to stray cats varied according to perceptions of the built or cultivated environment, which render cat spaces either discrepant or acceptable features of the urban landscape and represent cats as either wild or potentially domestic (Griffiths et al. 2000, 68).

The government’s disciplinary regime and exacting standards of urban cleanliness, health, and hygiene have led to a prevalent perception of cats as pests and carriers of germs and viruses. Stray cats have outlived their traditional purposes of curbing cockroach and rat populations, which are no longer a key concern for Singapore’s urban health, and of scavenging and clearing the food waste of roadside vendors, who no longer exist save for their re-creations in tourist attractions or in such modern spaces as coffee shops, hawker centers, and wet markets. Nevertheless, for cat lovers, because humans have generated conditions that do not give space to stray cats to survive, humans have a “collective causal responsibility” to create and maintain spaces to allow displaced cats to continue to live (Palmer 2003, 68, 71). That cat lovers and cat-welfare groups of different classes could create a discourse and use their activism to address the alienation of Singaporeans from stray cats in particular and nature in general highlights government passivity. Such passivity was also on display in the lack of efforts to control the population of macaques through sterilization in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. On the whole, state agencies give low priority to such issues (Yeo and Neo 2010, 695).

Because the government has been passive about cats (as well as such issues as LBGT behavior and public morality) and unwilling to devote much attention, effort, and resources to managing the stray-cat population unless absolutely necessary, individual cat lovers and cat-welfare associations assumed the functions of responding to appeals and requests from the public, collecting and keeping stray or unwanted cats, neutering and spaying these cats, and at times opposing what they view as a flagrant violation of animal rights—killing stray cats—on the part of the government. In the absence of active state involvement, cat activists try to fill the gap in the government’s treatment of stray cats however they deem fit, with or without civil alliances or state support.

Accepted: February 17, 2016


I thank Michael Montesano, Isaac C. K. Tan, and the editors and anonymous reviewers for their kind support and helpful suggestions. Without Michael, I would never have published this article.


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1) A case that illuminates the government’s nonchalance toward animal resources is its eradication of pig farming in the 1980s, when it decided that Singapore, given the country’s booming economy and expanding population, would fail to achieve self-sufficiency in pork in the long run and that the land occupied by pig farms could be redeveloped for more economically productive purposes (Neo 2016).

2) Race and multiculturalism eventually took their toll on stray dogs. Dogs are considered unclean by most Malays, so the government put down almost all stray dogs by the 1980s. At present, dogs roam only in Singapore’s remotest, most “pristine” regions (wastelands, as opposed to state land), and cats dominate on the island as the numerically and physically largest and most visible mammal besides humans (Stimpfl 2006, 75).


Vol.4, No.2 Blackburn, Tan

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 2

The Emergence of Heritage Conservation in Singapore and the Preservation of Monuments Board (1958–76)

Kevin Blackburn* and Tan Peng Hong Alvin**

* Department of Humanities and Social Studies Education, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616

Corresponding author’s e-mail: kevin.blackburn[at]

** Raffles Girls’ School, 20 Anderson Road, Singapore 259978

This article demonstrates that the beginnings of the heritage conservation debate in Singapore extend back to the colonial period. It argues that the early colonial and postcolonial debates on heritage conservation in Singapore were influenced by a Western hegemony over what constituted heritage and how it could be conserved. A non-governmental organization, the Friends of Singapore, emerged in 1937 and battled to preserve what it saw as the heritage of Singapore. The organization helped the colonial government draw up a list of historic sites, monuments, and buildings for preservation in Singapore’s 1958 Master Plan. The coming to power of the People’s Action Party in 1959 began a debate within bureaucratic circles on urban renewal versus heritage conservation. The People’s Action Party believed it had a mandate to demolish what it saw as old slums in the central city area and replace them with better housing in the form of modern government high-rise apartments. In the 1960s, various government committees considered the 1958 heritage list and proposed setting up a government body to administer the preservation of heritage buildings. The Preservation of Monuments Board (now called the Preservation of Sites and Monuments) was charged with carrying out this task when it was established in 1971. However, by the late 1970s, Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority increasingly became the state agency to conserve whole zones while the Preservation of Monuments Board was allocated the task of gazetting for the preservation of individual buildings and sites.

Keywords: Singapore, preservation, conservation, monuments, sites

In Singapore, where a strong state has driven heritage conservation measures, there has evolved a distribution of conservation work between two state agencies—the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Preservation of Monuments Board (known since 2013 as the Preservation of Sites and Monuments). The Urban Redevelopment Authority has designated whole conservation zones, while the smaller Preservation of Monuments Board has picked out individual historic monuments and buildings for preservation. The beginning of heritage conservation in Singapore lies with the events that led to the creation of the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1971. The Urban Redevelopment Authority did not commence its involvement in heritage conservation until much later. The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s designation of key conservation areas, such as Chinatown, Kampong Glam, and Little India, started only in the 1980s. Singapore’s heritage non-governmental organization, the Singapore Heritage Society, was not established until 1987. The Preservation of Monuments Board had already been listing historic buildings for conservation for 16 years. Studying the history of the creation of the Preservation of Monuments Board in Singapore reveals the forces behind the early emergence of heritage conservation in Singapore and how Western ideas and institutions provided models for heritage conservation in Singapore to follow.

Heritage conservation was often viewed as a luxury developing countries such as Singapore could not afford during the early years of independence. There was an urgency to rapidly industrialize and to maximize urban space for commercial development and modern housing through urban renewal. This has been taken to mean that little thought was given to heritage conservation by postcolonial governments until after significant economic development had occurred (Yeoh and Huang 1996, 411). However, Lily Kong, in her history of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, suggested an opposing view. She proposed that even during the intense period of demolition and rebuilding of urban renewal, there were advocates of heritage conservation within the bureaucracy “who persisted until their voices became more influential” (Kong 2010, 47). These voices, although present in the 1960s and 1970s, had to wait for a wider acceptance within the bureaucracy. Her argument is that Singapore government agencies “were not monolithic or homogenous”; instead “within those agencies and bodies, multiple voices seek to be heard” (ibid.). Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh (2003, 131) make it clear that in Singapore, the “state’s engagement with issues of heritage” only occurred more fully at “a specific juncture of its development”—the 1980s and 1990s. However, the Preservation of Monuments Board had its genesis during the 1960s. Debates in the 1960s that led to the Preservation of Monuments Board’s creation might reveal more about these early voices of heritage conservation that Kong describes as not coming to the fore until much later.

Kong’s assertion that there were quiet heritage debates within the Singapore bureaucracy in the 1960s and 1970s is hinted at by some published material reflecting the thinking of the bureaucrats and the politicians. In one article, Alan Choe, who became in 1964 the first head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s predecessor, the Urban Renewal Department, asserted: “Contrary to misinformed belief, urban renewal does not mean just the pulling down of slum sections and rebuilding on the cleared area” (1969, 165). He argued: “There are actually three indispensable elements of urban renewal; conservation, rehabilitation and rebuilding. This would mean identification of the areas worth preserving; a programme to improve such areas and make them habitable with an improved environment; and an identification of the areas that must be demolished and rebuilt” (1968, 2–5). In a published interview, Choe even mentioned that in 1967 then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had approached him with his concern that not enough consideration had been given to preserving historic buildings in the rush by Singapore’s urban planners to engage in urban renewal (Straits Times, April 12, 2014). These published statements raise the question why there was not more of a balance between conservation and redevelopment of the urban landscape. This article uses recently declassified material in the Singapore state’s archives to answer this question and explore these early conservation debates.

Heritage debates that developed from colonial times into the early postcolonial period in other Asian countries have been influenced by what Denis Byrne has called a “Western hegemony in heritage management” spread “by a process of ideology transfer rather than imposition” (1991, 273). Ken Taylor (2004), expanding on Byrne, argued that Western heritage organizations, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and Western codes of heritage preservation, such as the 1964 Venice Charter, were in the early debates over heritage conservation not culturally sensitive enough to incorporate traditional Asian views. Western notions of heritage conservation described in the Venice Charter have emphasized “authenticity” of the original building materials, while traditional Asian notions of heritage have seen little wrong with regular rebuilding and expansion of historic buildings that maintain “the spirit of the place” and the traditional skills needed to rebuild and expand (Byrne 1991, 275).

The Venice Charter, in particular, has been seen as delineating in Western terms the very definitions of heritage management in many of the early debates of the 1960s and 1970s (Winter 2014, 123). In the Venice Charter, conservation was synonymous with preservation. Conserving a building or site meant keeping it “authentic” and preserving it with no changes. Restoration contrasted with preservation. Changes to a historic building or site were limited by strict prohibitions allowing the use of only “original” and “authentic” materials in the restoration process. The Charter outlined a conception of heritage in its preamble, declaring: “Imbued with a message from the past, the historic monuments of generations of people remain to the present day as living witnesses of their age-old traditions. People are becoming more and more conscious of the unity of human values and regard ancient monuments as a common heritage” (ICOMOS). Were the early heritage debates in Singapore during the rapid redevelopment of its urban landscape influenced by this Western hegemony, as is suggested by studies of other Asian countries?

Heritage Conservation in Colonial Singapore

The urban redevelopment of Singapore was planned well before the People’s Action Party (PAP) government took over in 1959 when Singapore achieved self-government. These plans do suggest a Western hegemony, in particular, dominating ideas from the center of the British Empire. In 1955, a Master Plan for Singapore, modeled on the Greater London Plan prepared by Peter Abercrombie in 1944, was drawn up by veteran British town planner Sir George Pepler (Lim 1955, column 574). He had been responsible for Britain’s Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which enacted many of Abercrombie’s ideas (Khublall and Yuen 1991, 40).

The Singapore Master Plan was approved by the Governor in 1958 as a statute that controlled all future urban development until 1972 (Dale 1999, 73–77). It became known as the 1958 Master Plan. Pepler’s main recommendations contained many features of the Greater London Plan. Singapore’s Master Plan promoted decentralization by setting up satellite “new towns” outside the Central Area such as Woodlands, Yio Chu Kang, and Jurong, to facilitate future urban growth rather than add to an already densely populated Central Area. The Master Plan was designed to accommodate Singapore’s doubling of population from one million in 1953 to two million in 1972. Urban redevelopment of Singapore’s overcrowded Central Area was planned. A green belt was envisaged to contain the expansion of the Central Area. All these concepts applied to Singapore had their origins in Abercrombie’s ideas. The planned urban redevelopment of Singapore appears to illustrate notions of a Western hegemony over the cultural and urban landscape during the colonial period.

One of the other recommendations of the plan was that the colonial urban planning agency and public housing builder, the Singapore Improvement Trust, “shall prepare and shall supplement and amend from time to time a list of ancient monuments and land and buildings of historic and/architectural interest” (Colony of Singapore 1955, 17). The Singapore Improvement Trust took on an additional role of “the protection of ancient monuments and land and buildings of historic and/or architectural interest” (ibid.). Thirty historic buildings and sites, all dating before the mid-nineteenth century, were listed by the Master Plan as worthy of preservation. Their selection seemed to follow the then current Western ideas of “authenticity” and antiquity, because no building from the twentieth century was included. However, there were compromises as most of the temples and mosques had undergone substantial restorations since their erection in the nineteenth century.

The list included many temples such as the Thian Hock Keng and the Sri Mariamman temples in Chinatown, built in 1821 and 1827 respectively. Also listed were an equal number of mosques such as the Jamae Mosque in Chinatown, which was first built in 1826. European churches were included, such as the Catholic Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, constructed in 1846, and the Anglican St Andrews Cathedral, built in 1862. Raffles Institution, a school erected in 1837, and Outram Gaol, built in 1847, were also buildings to be preserved. One Indian and two Malay-Muslim graveyards were on the list (ibid.). The list was a multicultural representation of Singapore’s different races and faiths. This was the first time a Singapore state agency had been entrusted with heritage conservation.

The 1955 heritage list of what were called “Ancient Monuments and Land and Buildings of Architectural and/or Historical Interest” did not represent the first compilation of Singapore’s historic buildings and sites. However, it was the first list in Singapore presented by a state agency for future preservation. In 1954, the colonial administration had formed what it called the Ancient Monuments Committee to compile a list of historic buildings and monuments. This list designated sites where historic markers were placed; it was not for protecting sites and buildings, and it did not stop buildings from being demolished (Public Relations Office, 625/54).

The 1954 and 1955 lists were examples of what Laurajane Smith called a situation in which heritage is designated by a “hegemonic discourse” which was “reliant on power/knowledge claims of technical and aesthetic experts” (2006, 11). The committees that drew up the 1954 and 1955 lists also illustrated Byrne’s notion that in Asia, there was a Western and colonial hegemony over what constituted heritage. Both committees comprised mainly colonial officials who were trained in British ideas of what were regarded as historic buildings, monuments, and sites. They included Michael Wilmer Forbes Tweedie and Carl Alexander Gibson-Hill, the postwar directors of the Raffles Museum. All items listed were originally erected in the early nineteenth century. Most items on the lists were temples and mosques. Older religious buildings and sites were seen as more “authentic” and “original” representations of Asian cultures (Public Relations Office, 625/54).

The 1955 list was drawn up in consultation with an organization known as the “Friends of Singapore” (Ministry of Culture, 276/63). This society was founded in 1937 by wealthy and well-educated members of the colonial elite in order to “stimulate interest in the cultural and historical life of Singapore” (Straits Times, August 19, 1948). The organization’s founder was European lawyer Sir Roland St. J. Braddell, who had written a history of Singapore (Singapore Free Press, September 10, 1947). One of the society’s objectives was the “preservation of historical buildings and sites” (Friends of Singapore, Charter). European firms held “life membership” in the society in order to financially support the organization. Its patron was Sir Robert Black, the Governor of Singapore (Straits Times, August 26, 1955; January 23, 1957). When the Master Plan became law in 1958 after extensive public meetings on its proposals, two more buildings were added to the list to make a total of 32. These were the Sun Yat Sen Villa in the Balestier Road area and the Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple in Little India.

The Friends of Singapore continued to have considerable influence over the listing of historic buildings. The society was invigorated by the heritage preservation powers of the Singapore Improvement Trust. Previously, the society had failed in its attempt to produce a historic guide to Singapore, and its major achievement was putting up portraits of all of Singapore’s governors in the Victoria Memorial Hall (Singapore Free Press, April 1, 1948). In 1956, the Friends of Singapore supported the Singapore Improvement Trust in resisting objections to the heritage listing of Killiney House at No. 3 Oxley Rise, which was built in 1842 by the Surgeon General Dr. Thomas Oxley. The owner, Chartered Bank Trustee Company, felt that if the building were classified as an “ancient monument,” it would be hard to sell it, so the company wanted it removed from the list. The Friends of Singapore gave the Singapore Improvement Trust historical and architectural “evidence that the property should be preserved for prosperity” (Straits Times, June 21, 1956). Killiney House remained on the list. In the same year, the Friends of Singapore successfully fought to keep a nature park in the Master Plan that marked a 1942 battle between the Malay Regiment and the Japanese, as park space. The army had proposed that it be turned into a car park (Straits Times, June 22, 1956; July 12, 1956).

In 1957, at the Friends of Singapore’s 20th anniversary dinner, its president T. W. Ong, a wealthy Anglophile Chinese businessman, felt emboldened to make the organization’s first clear statement against the demolition of historic buildings: “We should not tear down historical buildings and monuments so quickly in order to put up some new brick and mortar building for it is difficult to replace some monuments” (Singapore Free Press, February 7, 1957). For Ong and the Friends of Singapore, these buildings reinforced the collective memories of the past of the country’s different ethnic communities (Friends of Singapore, Report and Accounts for the Year 1937/38). Ong added: “Singapore would be a city without a soul if the cultures of its various races were not maintained” (Singapore Free Press, February 7, 1957). The activities of the Friends of Singapore demonstrated that in the 1950s, there appeared little difference between preservation and conservation. These terms were as they appeared in the Venice Charter in the 1960s—almost interchangeable. This Western hegemony over the terms of heritage used in Singapore was also evident in the terminology and ideas employed in the redevelopment of the urban landscape, which became a priority in the early postcolonial period.

Urban Renewal and “Rehabilitation” of Historic Areas

This emerging awareness of heritage conservation within and outside of the state threatened to be side-lined by the election of the People’s Action Party (PAP) government in 1959 when Singapore achieved self-government from the colonial administration. The PAP came to power on a party platform promising to create more jobs and to build more public housing (Fong 1980, 72). This entailed what it called “clearing the slums”—demolishing dilapidated old buildings overcrowded with the urban poor in the Central Area of the city of Singapore and erecting modern flats in their place (The Tasks Ahead 1959, 29). The PAP’s 1959 election manifesto declared that “the Colonial Government has failed miserably in housing the people, and the result is more and more slums” (ibid.). The priority of the PAP was that “land can be used fully for housing and industrial development” (ibid.).

Some members of the incoming PAP government evinced animosity towards the Friends of Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew, leader of the PAP and after 1959 the new Prime Minister of Singapore, dismissed the Friends of Singapore as a “quaint” society “whose objects is the entertainment of past and present Governors and one of whose duties is to collect portraits of previous Governors” in order to get what he called “kudos” from the Governor (Lee 1956, column 186). The Friends of Singapore was equally dismissive of Lee. Its president Ong alleged that Lee was engaged in the “distortion of facts to gain personal publicity,” which Ong said, “was not an uncommon trait among leaders of any extremist party.” Ong went even further, adding that Lee was in a position where he “must concoct something to save his own skin” (Straits Times, September 9, 1956). These words were exchanged between Lee and Ong in 1956, but they doomed the Friends of Singapore as an emerging heritage NGO once Singapore’s colonial administration handed power over to the PAP. The Friends of Singapore ceased to have any influence and was disbanded by the 1970s.

After 1959, urban planning in Singapore entered a new stage. In the last few months of the colonial administration in February 1959, legislation was drafted to dissolve the Singapore Improvement Trust into two organizations: the Housing Development Board to build public housing and the Planning Department. The transition to the postcolonial government meant these ordinances did not come into effect until February 1960. However, there were teething problems for the postcolonial government. There was an acute shortage of planning staff in the Planning Department, which consisted of three local urban planners, only two of whom had experience in the Singapore Improvement Trust (Dale 1999, 78). Given the deficiencies of an understaffed, ad hoc, and uncoordinated haphazard planning process, the Singapore government requested assistance from the United Nations Development Programme for recommendations on dealing with the difficult issues of urban renewal and redevelopment. This culminated in several key reports and recommendations that had far-reaching consequences for the Singapore landscape.

The first United Nations mission in 1962, led by Erik Lorange, recommended the complete revision of the 1958 Master Plan in order to pursue redevelopment, large-scale public housing, and the establishment of new towns. Ole Johan Dale (1999, 78), a Singapore-based urban planner, deemed the catalyst which Lorange provided for urban renewal as his “most important contribution.” For Lorange, “the social arguments for taking up central redevelopment of Singapore are evident and obtrusive. The condition of the majority of the central residential buildings is poor to a frightening degree” (Final Report 1962, 6). He concluded that “comprehensive redevelopment without a doubt is the ultimate answer of the present extensive accumulation of slums in the Central Area, but this will demand a long period of years to fulfil in substance” (ibid., 51). Lorange suggested that in the meantime, minor measures be taken to “rehabilitate” areas. According to him, while some buildings might need demolishing, many in the short term could be “subjected to code enforcement, to induce the owners to widen shop frontages and make selective repairs on their buildings” (ibid., 51).


Map 1 The Plan for Urban Renewal in the Central Area of Singapore

Source: After Choe (1969)

In his report, Lorange recommended that demolition and extensive urban redevelopment begin only from the fringes of the Central Area and gradually move into its center so that much could be learnt from experimenting on the periphery of the old city area. For the first stage of urban renewal, he designated the old Kampong Rochor shophouses that were part of the Malay-Muslim Kampong Glam historic area, extending from Crawford Street to Jalan Sultan. The area had been designated N1 (meaning North 1 precinct) among the 19 precincts in the city divided up by the 1958 Master Plan. While Lorange’s recommendations for urban renewal were accepted by the Singapore planning authorities, his calls for “rehabilitation” were ignored. In 1966, Kampong Rochor, with the exception of the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque, built in 1845, was demolished to make way for public housing as part of the first phase of urban renewal in Singapore. The Hajjah Fatimah Mosque, along what was then Java Road, was on the 1958 Master Plan’s list of historic buildings to be preserved (Gamer 1972, 139). This lone standing historic building in the demolished Kampong Rochor area testified to the power of being on the list of what were regarded as historic buildings. However, at the other end of the Central Area, Outram Gaol, which was also on the same heritage list from the 1958 Master Plan, was demolished along with many shophouses, to make way for the redevelopment of the S1 (meaning South 1 precinct) area in the south, as recommended by Lorange.

A subsequent 1963 United Nations mission consisting of Charles Abrams, Susumu Kobe, and Otto Koenigsberger, also laid the groundwork for intensive state involvement in urban planning. The mission recommended that urban planning in Singapore be institutionalized through the creation of an Urban Renewal Team within the Housing Development Board (Growth and Urban Renewal in Singapore 1963, 189). Set up in 1964, the Urban Renewal Team later became the Housing Development Board’s Urban Redevelopment Department in 1966 and was legislated as a separate statutory authority, the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 1974.

In contrast to Lorange, the members of the 1963 United Nations mission were adamant that urban renewal should not lead to large-scale demolition. Members of the United Nations mission, like Lorange, highlighted that the “three indispensable aspects of urban renewal are (1) conservation, (2) rehabilitation, and (3) rebuilding” (ibid., 121). They “rejected the idea of wholesale demolition of large quarters” of the old city (ibid., 18). They explained that “this decision was motivated primarily by the desire to minimize the social upheaval and the suffering” (ibid.). The decision was “based also on the recognition of the value and attraction of many of the existing shophouses and the way of living, working, and trading that produced this particularly Singapore type of architecture” (ibid.). “Every big city needs escape hatches from sameness and order, and areas like Chinatown can emerge into important examples if they are treated with something more subtly than the steam shovel” (ibid., 123). They warned: “We must beware of the bulldozer ‘addicts’ who are straining to flatten out every hill, fill in every valley, and cover the resulting flat desert with a dull network of roads, factory sheds, and regimented blocks of houses” (Gamer 1972, 142).

According to Alan Choe (1975, 98), who became the first head of the Urban Renewal Department, the 1963 United Nations Mission Report was “studied by the Singapore Government, and subsequently a comprehensive plan for urban renewal in the Central Area of Singapore was formulated.” Choe had absorbed postwar British ideas of town planning and heritage conservation when taking extra electives for his degree in architecture from the University of Melbourne in Australia (Straits Times, April 12, 2014). Urban planners in Singapore during the 1960s, while not accepting rehabilitation and conservation as much as the United Nations teams recommended, did not rule them out. However, in the case of Singapore, urban planners such as Choe tended to be ambivalent about its built heritage:

Unlike England or Europe, Singapore does not possess architectural monuments of international importance. There are therefore few buildings worthy of preservation. In addition many of the buildings in the Central Area are overdue for demolition. Hence to preach urban renewal by conservation and rehabilitation alone does not apply in the Singapore context. There must also be clearance and rebuilding. (Choe 1969, 165)

The comments by Choe about Singapore’s built heritage reveal why in the 1960s the balance between conservation and redevelopment was tilted towards the latter. Western notions of “authenticity” in having a “grand old building” in the same physical state for hundreds of years were difficult to apply to the local landscape. However, Choe believed that the movement towards a list of monuments and historic buildings to be preserved was compatible with urban renewal. In August 1968, when the idea of a National Trust or Preservation of Monuments Board was being mooted within the Ministry of Culture, Choe said in a public address: “As a result of urban renewal it has been found desirable to set-up a proper body to look into the question of ‘Preservation of Sites, Buildings and Monuments of Historical or Architectural Interests.’” He added, “Legislation for the proper formation of such a body will give it the necessary powers including the proper selection, preservation, management financing etc. of such sites, buildings and monuments” (Choe 1968, 3). Choe’s expression of this ambivalence towards the creation of a heritage preservation body was in keeping with the debates that were going on inside the Singapore government bureaucracy during the 1960s. There were discussions about how to create a government agency that could preserve historic buildings amidst extensive urban renewal.

UNESCO and Singapore

While a conservation-redevelopment debate over whole areas of Singapore’s old city was stimulated by the United Nations mission of urban planners, the action of UNESCO also provoked discussion in Singapore over the preservation of its historic buildings, monuments, and sites. In 1961, Vittorine Veronsese, Director-General of UNESCO, wrote to the Singapore Ministry of Culture asking for a representative to be on UNESCO’s International Committee on Monuments, Artistic and Historical Sites and Archaeological Excavations, which was the predecessor of the World Heritage Committee (Ministry of Culture, 179/61). UNESCO was stepping up its activities to help the preservation of monuments in the developing world as well as in developed countries. In Asia, these actions included a 1961 assessment of the Buddhist pagodas of Pagan in Burma, a 1963 restoration study of the giant Buddhist statues at the Bamiyan site in Afghanistan, a 1966 mission to preserve the Buddhist stupas of the old Thai capital of Ayutthaya, a study of the Indonesian site of Borobudur in 1966, and the restoration of Angkor Wat in 1967–68 (UNESCO 1970, 33–36).

The Director-General of UNESCO, while noting national efforts to preserve historic monuments and sites, believed that UNESCO “had a duty to take its own steps to bring these national efforts into a world-wide scheme” (ibid., 23). UNESCO proposed an International Campaign for Historical Monuments in 1964 aimed at creating among UNESCO member nations “publicity during this period, to bring home to their citizens the value of the monuments of the past” (ibid.). UNESCO’s intervention stimulated the idea of setting up in Singapore a heritage preservation organization based on the model which Singapore bureaucrats were most familiar with—the National Trust of England (Ministry of Culture, 400/62).

Christopher Hooi, a senior curator of anthropology at the Singapore National Museum, advised the Singapore government to accept UNESCO’s invitation to participate in its proposed international heritage preservation organization (Ministry of Culture, 179/61). Hooi had graduated with a degree in anthropology from the University of London, and his thinking on the preservation of historic buildings was influenced by his time in Britain when he had familiarized himself with the National Trust and British heritage legislation. His enthusiasm for what UNESCO was planning and his own ideas, which were drawn from his training in Britain, confirms Bryne’s notion that the Western hegemony on early heritage management in Asia was the result not of ideological “imposition” but of “transfer” (Bryne 1991, 273). Hooi was also aware that other developing countries were setting up state organizations to manage historic buildings based on the British Ancient Monuments Protection Act, which dates to 1882. This act also had its own list of preserved and protected historic buildings. Within the developing world, India followed Britain and had its own Ancient Monuments Preservation Act since 1904; following independence, this was expanded and became the 1951 Ancient and Historic Monuments and Remains Act. India’s version of the Britain’s National Trust was enshrined into the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) (Ribeiro 1990). Malaya enacted its Treasure Trove Act in 1957, which contained some provisions for protecting ancient monuments and historic sites.

The Singapore Government took Hooi’s advice. Hooi convened an ad hoc committee meeting on December 29, 1962 to apply to the Singapore context UNESCO’s ideas on the preservation of historic monuments and sites. Professor K. G. Tregonning and Professor Wang Teh Chao, two academic historians, as well as two representatives from Singapore’s Ministry of Culture attended this meeting. The committee accepted Tregonning’s proposal that “a historical monument” should be defined as “any building 100 years or over in 1962” and “any other building, shrine or monument which in the eyes of the committee has historical value or significance” (Ministry of Culture, 400/62). Tregonning also suggested “the possibility of legislation being made later on to preserve certain historic monuments” (ibid.). At the next meeting of the committee on January 15, 1963, this definition of what was to be preserved was expanded to include historical sites. After its meetings ended, Hooi transmitted the deliberations of the committee to the Prime Minister’s Office, which maintained an interest in heritage conservation at the behest of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (ibid.).

Creating a National Trust for Singapore

After the committee to examine UNESCO’s proposals on monuments had ceased, Hooi was involved in establishing a further committee within the Singapore Ministry of Culture in May 1963 to re-examine the 1958 Master Plan’s idea of having a list of historic monuments protected by legislation. The terms of reference of the committee were to re-examine the list of 32 historic monuments and sites outlined by the Master Plan and to suggest regulations that would protect them. It was chaired by Tan Jake Hooi, Acting Chief of the Planning Department that had emerged from the dissolution of the Singapore Improvement Trust, the body entrusted with preserving historic monuments. Tan Jake Hooi and his fellow planners dominated the new committee.

At its first meeting on August 26, 1963, the committee began with the assumption that for preserving a building, “age alone should not be a criterion” (Ministry of Culture, 276/63). The committee considered not just preservation but partial preservation of historic buildings, or even the “preparation of measured drawings of the structures concerned prior to their demolition” (ibid.). The members of the committee examining the list of 32 historic monuments and sites outlined by the Master Plan mulled over whether to have public inquiries when planning applications were made that would affect historic buildings. However, the committee, which was dominated by urban planners, rejected this proposal as it would most likely slow down the rapid urban renewal that they were overseeing in the Central Area of Singapore.

Within the committee, the intentions of the urban planners in the Planning Department were articulated by Tan Jake Hooi, the Chief Planner who headed the Planning Department. At the second meeting of the committee, when addressing the task of deciding on a list of historic sites and buildings to be preserved, Tan remarked that “the object of drawing up such a list” was “not to guarantee preservation but consideration of the possibility of preservation” (ibid.).

The position of the planners on the committee was influenced by the Planning Department’s decision to embark upon significant urban renewal of the Central Area. By mid-1963, the Planning Department had begun the demolition of the 1847 Outram Gaol, which was on the original 1955 heritage list of the draft Master Plan. Neighboring blocks of shophouses next to the Outram Gaol were also slated for demolition. This was recommended in the 1962 United Nations Lorange Report. In March 1963, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew started the redevelopment program by laying the foundation stone of two blocks of flats in the Outram area. Lee publicly announced the redevelopment of the Outram area in conjunction with the Kampong Rochor district. Both these redevelopment projects were recommended by Lorange (Straits Times, March 22, 1963). The Singapore government viewed the old buildings of the Outram area as slums and planned to demolish them and build high-rise flats that would accommodate 50,000 people (Straits Times, March 28, 1963).

At its meeting of February 7, 1964, the committee, at the behest of the urban planners, started dropping entries from the list on the pretext that the buildings would cost too much to restore or were not in their original form. The Western hegemonic ideas of “authenticity” were used by Western-educated planners to remove obstacles to urban renewal. The eight which were dropped at this meeting when urban development was in its early stages were: G. D. Coleman’s house, Raffles Institution, Outram Gaol, Victoria Memorial Hall, Sri Sivan temple, Geok Hong Tian temple, Keramat Radin Mas, and Sri Perumal temple (Ministry of Culture, 276/63). The dominance of urban renewal over heritage conservation was highlighted at this meeting by the deletion of Outram Gaol, which was in the S1 precinct that was one of the first areas of the Central Area to be earmarked for urban renewal. It had been marked for demolition the year before in 1963.

When it came to envisaging the type of administrative body to preserve historic buildings, Singapore’s colonial connections meant that the members of the committee turned to Britain for a model of heritage conservation. The National Trust of England was regarded as a model to follow for conservation in Singapore. It was proposed that the executive committee members of a Singapore national trust would periodically visit and inspect buildings that were designated as worthy of preservation and advise their owners on alterations and changes. The proposed trust would acquire historic buildings that were seen as warranting preservation if acquisition was needed. From its first meeting, the committee favored the creation of such an independent trust, which would have the support of the Ministry of Culture, but like its English counterpart, would primarily rely on private donations as well as some grants from the government (ibid.). At its meeting of March 17, 1964, the committee recommended to the Minister for National Development “the setting up of a Trust which would not only advise Government on what monuments, lands and buildings might be worthy of preservation or other measures but also help raise the necessary funds for securing preservation” (ibid.).

The idea of preserving Singapore’s historic buildings and sites began to gather momentum in Singapore’s bureaucracy in the mid-1960s when there was regret, expressed most publicly by the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR) which was founded in 1965, that the urban renewal projects were changing the urban landscape to the detriment of the historical character of Singapore. SPUR consisted mainly of architects such as William Lim and Tay Kheng Soon, but also included professionals and academics such as Tommy Koh and Chan Heng Chee. Bureaucrats, such as Christopher Hooi and Tan Jake Hooi, were also members of the group. SPUR championed a number of issues in urban planning, namely conservation of old buildings, a rail network, traffic control in the city, and the building of an airport at Changi (Naidu 2002, 62–66). It engaged in public discussions, forums, and talks; wrote letters to the press; and made representations to the government.

Speaking for its members in 1966, Edward Wong in a public talk, made clear SPUR’s position on the limits of urban renewal: “Although we are not advocating large-scale urban renewal, we do recognise that a measure of redevelopment is necessary as part of the evolution of any City” (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group 1967, 21). SPUR agreed with the 1963 United Nations team that “in both urban renewal and urban rehabilitation we have the same three basic processes. They are rehabilitation, conservation, and redevelopment” (ibid.). SPUR, following the same lines of reasoning as the Ministry of Culture committees on heritage preservation, advocated “the selection of buildings or groups of buildings for preservation indefinitely by reason of their historical, architectural or other special significance” (ibid.). Regarding the Central Area, SPUR argued that when “conserving selected buildings in this area our approach should be quite different from that of the Western world whose architectural history is written and taught from noble architectural monuments. We would be however conserving to a large measure vernacular architecture which is no less interesting” (ibid.). SPUR was suggesting that the ideas drawn from Western hegemony over heritage management, with their stress on “grand” old buildings and monuments, were inappropriate to the Singapore urban and cultural landscape, which comprised architecturally modest shophouses and equally modest religious buildings. Its members also seemed aware that this tipped the balance away from heritage conservation towards redevelopment. SPUR advocated having a pilot study in which the focus would be on rehabilitation rather than demolition and rebuilding.

In the mid-1960s, within the Singapore state bureaucracy, some attention was paid to preservation despite the ongoing urban renewal project. The committee established in 1963 sent its report to the Ministers for Culture and National Development, as well as the Prime Minister’s Office, at the end of 1964. It took some time for the report to be digested and the implications of it to be appreciated. Choe recalled, “One day [in 1967] I got a note from Lee Kuan Yew asking: ‘Have we thought about conservation?’ I sent him the folio I prepared. He sent me a note telling me he was very happy to see somebody was thinking ahead to preserve what little we had” (Straits Times, April 12, 2014). In Choe’s memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister on May 18, 1967, he proposed that for the preservation of historic buildings and sites, legislation should be drawn up to establish a national trust for Singapore. The result was that the Prime Minister “endorsed the need to preserve monuments of architectural or historic interest in Singapore” and directed that a committee be set up exploring “the question of forming a trust to undertake this task” (Ministry of Culture, 254/67).

In September 1967, a committee was formed within the Ministry of Culture and assigned with the task of drafting a piece of legislation aimed at creating a national trust for Singapore. There was continuity with the previous committees. Christopher Hooi was the chairman of a new sub-committee that worked towards the setting up of the national trust. Hooi had chaired the 1963 committee, which had concluded that “if the Trust [was] properly empowered, it could act positively” (Ministry of Culture, 276/63).

The 1963 committee members observed that the existing legislation, the Planning Ordinance, only gave the Planning Department “negative” powers at aiding preservation, such as delaying the approval of planning applications “in the hope that Government or other appropriate Authorities could step in” (ibid.). The government could prevent the owner from redeveloping but was not empowered to assume responsibility for ensuring the upkeep of the historic building or to buy it off the owner.

It was agreed among the members of the 1967 committee that a national monuments trust “should be given sufficient powers to assume a positive role” (Ministry of Culture, 254/67). The proposed national trust’s “positive” powers included the role “to advise [the Minister for National Development] on lands, artifacts, sites and buildings which should be listed and preserved as national monuments” and “the ability to acquire and maintain properties to ensure their preservation” (ibid.).

Proposed legislation for a Singapore national trust borrowed heavily from British heritage legislation and the National Trust of England. The British High Commission in Singapore even sent the Singapore committee copies of British town planning laws on heritage preservation and information about its National Trust. The pieces of legislation included copies of the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act 1913, the Ancient Monuments Act 1931, the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953, and the Local Authorities (Historic Buildings) Act 1962. In drafting legislation for a Singapore national trust, definitions of terms, such as “ancient monuments” and “owners,” were taken from these British acts (ibid.). The definition of “ancient monuments” was a copy of that written in the British Ancient Monuments Act which, according to the Singapore committee, was defined “so widely as potentially to include almost every building or structure of any kind made or occupied by man from ancient to modern times” (ibid.).

The proposed national trust of Singapore, like its British counterpart, was empowered to inspect historic buildings and to take action against owners who neglected or damaged them. Once a historic building or monument was officially gazetted, as in British legislation, there was no provision for that official declaration to be revoked if the owner was unhappy with it. Following the National Trust in Britain, there was provision for acquiring buildings by purchasing them. The national trust of Singapore was also mainly funded by donations rather than the government. It had a small government-funded budget that paid for its small number of staff. Donations were non-existent as Singapore was a developing country with few local philanthropists who were willing to contribute to preserving historic buildings, compared to donors who supported the National Trust in Britain. There was one major contrast between the proposed Singapore national trust and the National Trust in Britain: the British institution was not a government organization, although it was aided by various pieces of legislation.

Singapore’s national trust, when it was publicly announced in August 1969 by Eddie Barker, the National Development Minister, was conceived as a body serving the interests of the state and concerned with constructing a national identity and promoting economic benefits. The action of the government was viewed by the press as “a new move to see to it that landmarks of old Singapore will not just crumble away in forgotten memories” and that such a government body would assuage “the fear that the bulldozer of progress will leave nothing of the old behind in its dash to bigger and better buildings” (Straits Times, August 3, 1969). The urban planners on Christopher Hooi’s committee emphasized the value of a national trust to tourism and its contribution to the development of an identity for a new nation which had only gained full independence in 1965. For them, “this need for preservation was not only significant in the face of the tourism industry” but also “the very basis of a country’s history and heritage and will contribute to the formation of a national identity” (ibid.).

In 1970, Barker introduced to the Singapore parliament a revised piece of legislation for a government body similar to the proposed national trust of 1969 but called instead the Preservation of Monuments Board. This reflected its role as an arm of the state. When introducing the bill, Barker warned that because of urban renewal, “we may wake up one day to find our historical monuments either bulldozed or crumbling through neglect. As a new Singapore is being built, we must not let the worthwhile part of older Singapore disappear” (Barker 1970, column 337). Singapore’s Preservation of Monuments Board was empowered “to preserve monuments of historic, traditional, archaeological, architectural or artistic interest” (ibid.). It could recommend buildings to the Minister of National Development to be gazetted, and it could then acquire these buildings from their owners. The heritage sites which the Board considered were based on those listed in the 1958 Master Plan that had been evaluated and added to by several government committees in the 1960s. The membership of the Board was similar to the various preceding government committees of the 1960s: Urban Redevelopment Department planners, architects, museum workers, government tourism officials, and civil servants. Perhaps with a view to soliciting donations, a wealthy banker, Lien Ying Chow, became the Chairman of the Board.

Preserving Individual Buildings versus Preserving Whole Conservation Zones

The Preservation of Monuments Board’s early gazetting of individual historic buildings for preservation stimulated heritage debates within the bureaucracy and outside it. When it was first publicly proposed in 1969, the expectations of such a body being able to declare conservation zones rather than just individual buildings were raised in the press (Straits Times, August 3, 1969). In 1970, William Lim, an architect from SPUR, echoed this call when he stated in a public address that “much larger areas will need to be conserved for the character of the Central Area to be kept intact. This is necessary to provide our citizens with a sense of environmental and historical continuity, and to allow gradual evolutionary changes to take place in the urban environment” (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group 1971, 40).

The issue of preserving whole conservation zones was on the minds of the senior members of the Singapore government. In November 1971, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Kim San, a senior cabinet minister who implemented the PAP’s housing policy throughout the 1960s, discussed what they called “urban renewal and preservation of our multiracial culture and tradition” (Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, TPB/F/72 [A] Vol. I). At the suggestion of the Prime Minister, a Special Committee for Conversion of Selective Historic Sites into Tourist Attractions was set up. Alan Choe of the Urban Renewal Department sat on the committee, together with senior representatives from the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, the Ministry of Finance, the National Museum, and the Jurong Town Corporation. Choe suggested to the Prime Minister 16 areas for conservation. The committee proposed to the Prime Minister that the Chinatown area of Telok Ayer Street and Smith Street/Mosque Street/Pagoda Street be divided into two projects for conservation to be overseen by the Urban Renewal Department. The two conservation areas in Chinatown were trials for other areas Choe and the committee had selected for preservation (ibid.).

In the discussions on heritage conservation within the bureaucracy, it was initially thought that the Preservation of Monuments Board might be able to go beyond listing only individual buildings and sites and move to proclaiming whole conservation zones. From its first meeting on April 21, 1972, the Preservation of Monuments Board began to use its power to acquire historic buildings. It started by purchasing the Thong Chai Medical Institution, but this purchase soon turned out to be a financial disaster as the Board’s funds were consumed by the high cost of ongoing restoration. The bad experience of owning a historic building meant that the Preservation of Monuments Board never contemplated doing it again. At this initial meeting, the Preservation of Monuments Board had proposed to preserve a whole street—Telok Ayer Street. This street, with its Chinese Thian Hock Keng temple and two mosques, was seen as “a good example to preserve a whole street as a historic landmark” (Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting, May 26, 1972). In August 1972, the proposal of preserving the whole of Telok Ayer Street was shelved indefinitely because the Board’s technical committee reported that “it would be better to concentrate initially on one project at a time to gain experience” (Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting, August 18, 1972). The failure of this proposal to be followed up illustrated the limitations of the powers of the Preservation of Monuments Board. It lacked the resources to preserve a whole street or zone.

The Preservation of Monuments Board struggled to preserve even single buildings and chose buildings that could be preserved at little financial cost to the Board, but which could still be used for their original function. At first, the Preservation of Monuments Board gazetted for preservation mainly religious buildings that remained in private ownership. State buildings were also easily gazetted. The Board avoided gazetting private buildings that did not have a religious function. The religious buildings gazetted by the Board included the Armenian Church, the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, the Sri Mariamman temple, and the Sultan’s Mosque. There was a clear reason behind such a strategy, as V. T. Arasu discovered when he was on the Preservation of Monuments Board—the Board was underfunded, understaffed, and could only buy one building. Even its role to ensure that historic buildings were maintained and preserved was hampered. Arasu recalled:

I asked why only religious buildings, I was told that because if a building is a public building used for religious purposes, then by declaring the building as a monument you do not have to change the use. Then secondly, you do not need to pay any compensation and PMB need not take any responsibility on maintaining the buildings. (Arasu 2000, 238)

The debates about preserving heritage within the Preservation of Monuments Board reflected how its powers and funding could barely cope with preserving individual buildings, let alone administer whole conservation zones, which was clearly beyond its capacity. In 1976, Alan Choe, General Manager of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which replaced the Urban Renewal Department in 1974, suggested expanding the powers of the Preservation of Monuments Board. On May 27, 1976, at a meeting of the Board, Choe asked on behalf of the Urban Redevelopment Authority for the Board to “consider on a long term basis the basic preservation of rows of houses and/or sections of central area/Chinatown” (Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting, May 27, 1976). Choe was critical of the Preservation of Monuments Board’s efforts, which he argued “had been confined to only designating individual buildings, mainly in the form of religious structures” (ibid.). However, Choe was rebuffed by the rest of the members of the Preservation of Monuments Board, who felt that the underfunded body with little finance could not cope with designating conservation zones. The Finance Committee of the Board strenuously opposed Choe’s proposal, arguing that “in regard to this particular proposal, the Board would be in no position to render financial contribution” (Preservation of Monuments Board Meeting, June 17, 1976). When the full Board met to consider Choe’s proposal, it took the advice of its Finance Committee and decided to reject the proposal, arguing that “should such a project be launched, it would be too big for any one organization to handle alone” (ibid.).

As General Manager of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Choe determined the course of heritage conservation in Singapore by initiating trial restoration and rehabilitation of groups of buildings and whole streets. In cooperation with the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, the Urban Redevelopment Authority started with the restoration of the Tudor Court buildings in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1975–76, 42). These were Tudor-styled buildings along Tanglin Road which had been built for government staff during the colonial period (Kong 2010, 32). The Urban Redevelopment Authority, under the 1966 Land Acquisition Act, was given extensive powers to compulsorily acquire land and buildings at a low price; they could then sell them to developers at a higher price (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1974–75, 13–15). It therefore had access to a level of funding and power over land and buildings that the Preservation of Monuments Board did not.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority focused on demolition and rebuilding, arguing that “in our land-short republic it is part of the thrust towards growth and progress, providing not only environmental improvement but also better employment and investment opportunities” (ibid., 7). It was the Urban Redevelopment Authority that tendered out run-down historic buildings to be demolished and replaced with new concrete multi-storey complexes (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1975–76, 58–70). Then it published before and after photographs highlighting the changes in its annual report as “progress.” The Urban Redevelopment Authority also highlighted its pilot studies that allowed it to acquire and restore historic areas. A row of 17 shophouses at Cuppage Road was restored and refurbished for new businesses in 1976. These restored shophouses were previously retail shops, sundry shops, and a fishmongery, but upon their restoration became antique shops and stores selling local craft and art items (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1977–78, 58–60). Next to the restored shophouses was the nine-storey concrete Cuppage Complex, which replaced other old shophouses and roadside hawkers (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1975–76, 31). The Urban Redevelopment Authority was clearly more engaged in the demolition of historic buildings than their conservation during the 1970s.

In its conservation of historic buildings, the Urban Redevelopment Authority had begun to move away from Western hegemonic ideas of preserving “authentically” and had compromised, such that the buildings could be considerably altered, re-used, and adapted to another purpose. This was a step away from the ideas of the Venice Charter and of UNESCO, which had been debated in Singapore during the 1960s.

In 1976, the Urban Redevelopment Authority also restored a row of shophouses along Murray Street in Chinatown. They were transformed into what was called “Food Alley,” which was a food center selling Chinese, Malay, and Indian delicacies (Urban Redevelopment Authority, Annual Report, 1977–78, 31). When commenting on the Cuppage Road and Murray Street projects, the Urban Redevelopment Authority observed:

Preservation of such buildings will serve as nostalgic reminders of our architecture and history and at the same time afford the streaming tourists with a view of the ‘old Singapore’. In this connection, the acid test of URA’s versatility in design would be the rehabilitation of Chinatown which is presently under active study. One of the main considerations in the preservation of this area is to improve the environmental set-up without losing the engaging bustle that is the mark of Chinatown. (ibid., 4)

The Urban Redevelopment Authority under Choe was in the mid-1970s engaged in experimenting with heritage conservation zones on a small scale; it had the objective of creating larger areas for rehabilitation and conservation in the future, such as Chinatown. The first large conservation zone was the Tanjong Pagar area of Chinatown. The Urban Redevelopment Authority had already acquired most of the land and buildings in the area for demolition and rebuilding. But the success of the small-scale conservation projects prompted a rethink that encouraged the Urban Redevelopment Authority to choose conservation in the mid-1980s (Kong 2010, 44).

Out of these early heritage debates of the 1960s and 1970s, there arose distinctive Singapore institutions of heritage conservation which saw conservation divided between the Preservation of Monuments Board and the Urban Redevelopment Authority. The heritage debates within the Singapore bureaucracy had produced the conservation model that would operate in Singapore from the 1980s onwards. The Preservation of Monuments Board gazetted individual historic buildings, monuments, and sites, which were usually religious or government buildings whose management was well within the limited powers of the Board. The Urban Redevelopment Authority filled the gap in heritage conservation that had been identified by Alan Choe, declaring whole conservation zones and restoring them for reuse. Tracing the rise of this Singapore model of conservation using archival documents of the Singapore state confirms Kong’s observation that within the bureaucracy, there had long been advocates of heritage conservation before the large-scale conservation zones were declared by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in the 1980s.

The debates of these early advocates of heritage conservation in Singapore were influenced by a Western hegemony over heritage management. These considerably diminished by the 1980s as Singapore developed its own institutions of heritage conservation. Singapore had rejected the idea of a national trust and had opted for a state agency, such as the Preservation of Monuments Board, that had very limited powers. Also, by placing the power to conserve whole zones in the hands of the very organization that had aggressively pursued demolition and rebuilding—the Urban Redevelopment Authority—conservation in Singapore could never displace redevelopment. Thus, despite these early debates over conservation in the bureaucracy, in the balance between redevelopment and conservation, it comes as no surprise that the focus was on redevelopment. The marginality of the Preservation of Monuments Board in conservation compared to the dominance of the Urban Redevelopment Authority has continued well into contemporary times. Recent heritage debates over the Bukit Brown and Jalan Kubor cemeteries have reflected this marginality, with graves and cemeteries that were once on the 1958 Master Plan list no longer considered to be the concern of the Preservation of Monuments Board but under the control of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, with its emphasis on redevelopment.

Accepted: January 14, 2015


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Vol. 2, No. 3, Atsushi Kobayashi

Contents>> Vol. 2, No. 3

The Role of Singapore in the Growth of Intra-Southeast Asian Trade, c.1820s–1852

Atsushi Kobayashi*

*小林篤史, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, 46 ­Shimoadchi-cho, Yoshida Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8501, Japan

e-mail: greysh-black.zg14[at]

This paper argues that the expansion of Southeast Asian trade in the first half of the nineteenth century was based partly on the growth of intra-regional trade. Singapore played a significant role as a British free port in the connection between Western long-distance trade and intra-regional trade.

According to my estimates, intra-regional trade centered on the British and Dutch colonies grew from the 1820s to 1852, with the focus shifting from Java to Singapore. As background to this growth, attention is drawn to the relaxation of Dutch protectionist tariffs imposed on British cotton goods imported via Singapore. Prompted by British diplomatic protests, tariff levels were reduced, and Singapore increased its exports of European cotton goods across the region. The importance of the distribution system for regional products in the rise of trade in Singapore is also discussed. As Southeast Asian products exported to the Asian market were traded through Singapore, local merchants such as the Chinese and Bugis often conducted transactions of those regional products in exchange for European cotton goods. Thus, the distribution system for regional products facilitated the influx of European cotton goods into the region via Singapore.

Keywords: Southeast Asian trade, intra-regional trade, Singapore, European cotton goods, Southeast Asian products, Asian merchants


In a new commercial wave during the first half of the nineteenth century, the expansion of British trade surged over Southeast Asia. The establishment of Singapore as a British free port in 1819 by Thomas Stamford Raffles of the East India Company contributed to the British advance on China (Greenberg 1951) and the increase of British influence in Southeast Asian trade (SarDesai 1977) during the nineteenth century. The purpose of this paper is to examine the patterns connecting regional trade with Western long-­distance trade in Southeast Asia during the second quarter of the century, focusing on the role of Singapore in the growth of intra-Southeast Asian trade.

Challenging the traditional historiography, recent studies have shown a resurgence in Asia’s long-distance trade and intra-Asian trade in the first half of the nineteenth century. Kaoru Sugihara (2009) criticizes traditional historiography for emphasizing the central importance of the opium triangle, and statistically demonstrates the existence of multilateral trading networks within Asia, not confined to the opium triangle. Moreover, intra-Asian trade composed mostly of necessities grew during this period. As background to this growth, Sugihara argues that local Asian merchants could take advantage of the new commercial opportunities that emerged as a result of the deregulation of trade by the British and Dutch East India Companies and the Chinese Qing government after the late eighteenth century.

Anthony Reid (1997) confronts the tendency to assume that commerce had been stagnant during the era between the end of the “age of commerce” in the second half of the seventeenth century and the growth of export economies under colonial rule in the late nineteenth century. Through an analysis of trade data of Southeast Asian exports from the 1760s to the 1840s, he finds that exports of major commodities from Southeast Asia enjoyed high growth rates during the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth century rather than during the high colonial period. Furthermore, as background to the expansion of commerce in this period, Reid (Reid and Fernando 1996) remarks that Asian traders, such as the Malays and Chinese, activated local trade in the face of the collapse of the monopoly of the Dutch East India Company and the lifting of maritime bans by the Chinese Qing government.

The studies by Sugihara and Reid serve to justify a reconsideration of the integration of Asian countries into the world economy in the nineteenth century. They criticize the fact that traditional historiography has placed emphasis on the impact of Western influence in Asia, and suggest that we inquire into the possible ways in which the reorganization of market institutions, the revitalization of merchants’ activities, and changes in the mode of production in Asia from the late eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth century facilitated the expansion of Western long-distance trade in Asia. From both studies emerges a new perspective that the patterns of regional response to Western trade in Asia during this period may have influenced the course of integration of Asian regions into the world economy after the second half of the nineteenth century, with a further progress of international division of labor.

Previous studies discussing the integration of Southeast Asia into the world economy in the nineteenth century, as Reid points out, have shown a tendency to assume that Southeast Asian trade was stagnant before 1850. In general, those studies before the early 1990s use statistics published by the colonial authorities in the late nineteenth century and examine the increase in primary product exports from individual countries under colonial rule (Cowan 1964; Maddison and Prince 1989; Booth 1991). Therefore, they assume, without a serious examination, that economic life in most parts of the region during the era when Western colonialism had not penetrated thoroughly and few statistical accounts are available, was based on agricultural activities as the chief means of subsistence (Thee 1989, 134–135; Booth 1991, 20). In contrast to this prevailing view, studies came out after the 1990s that discuss the boost in Southeast Asian trade in the first half of the nineteenth century from a new point of view (Reid 1997; Lindblad 2002; Li 2004a). Those studies place importance on the role of British free ports—Singapore and Penang—in connecting the region with Western long-distance trade, by highlighting the lively regional trade between these hubs and surrounding regions. In other words, it is suggested that the perspective of “intra-regional trade” across the framework of Western colonialism is effective in considering the expansion of Southeast Asian trade during this period. However, no study has discussed comprehensively the role of intra-regional trade in the expansion of Southeast Asian trade.

In light of these studies, this paper statistically demonstrates that intra-regional trade centered on British and Dutch colonies grew from the 1820s to the early 1850s. We see that the growth of intra-regional trade was partly affected by the Dutch protectionist tariff policy against British cotton goods based on the regional division of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. In addition, we find that multilateral trade relationships were formed in Singapore, in which Chinese middlemen played a central role through the reorganization of the distribution system of regional products, facilitating the distribution of European cotton across the region. In conclusion, it is argued that the combination of the new Western commercial wave and traditional trade flows brought about the growth of intra-regional trade and was the leading factor in the expansion of Southeast Asian trade in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The next section reviews what previous studies have said about Southeast Asian trade, focusing on local (intra-regional) trade, the inflow of European cotton goods, and the distribution of “Asian market-oriented” regional products. The third section defines the concept of intra-regional trade based on trade statistics and demonstrates the growth of intra-regional trade centered on the British and Dutch colonies from the 1820s. In the fourth section, we discuss the institutional basis for the growth of intra-regional trade by examining the development of British and Dutch tariff policies. In the latter part of this paper, we focus on Singaporean trade and shed light on the composition of commodities and merchants’ activities, revealing not only the importance of European cotton goods but also the role of various regional products in the growth of Singapore’s intra-regional trade.

Review of Literature

This section reviews previous studies dealing with the early-modern Southeast Asian trade in terms of local (intra-regional) trade, the influx of European cotton goods, and traditional circulations of regional products, in order to clarify the points of discussion in the following sections.

Some previous studies have examined the significance of trade within Southeast Asia, which is called “intra-regional trade” in this paper, in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is well recognized that the establishment of Singapore influenced the reorganization of regional trade structures. There is an important study by Wong Lin Ken (1960) that discusses comprehensively the trade of Singapore from 1819 to 1869. Relying on this work, Thomas Lindblad (2002) points out that we need to pay attention to the role of trade in Singapore in order to examine trade of the Outer Islands, which include the Malay Archipelago under Dutch influence apart from Java and Madura. He observes that the Outer Islands had close trade relationships with Singapore after the 1820s, and that such regional trade was conducted by traditional commercial networks such as those of the Bugis, Chinese, Minangkabau, and so on. In addition, some scholars discuss the connection of mainland Southeast Asia, especially the Gulf of Siam area, with Singapore. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the lower Mekong region became the commercial frontier. Chinese immigrants and merchants flowed into the area, largely influenced by the economic growth of China (Cooke and Li 2004). The regional trade route and system formed during that period were partly reorganized by connecting Singapore with the expansion of the distribution of Western-influenced products, such as opium and British cotton goods, in the region (Reid 2004, 30–32; Li 2004b, 78–79). Accordingly, these previous studies suggest that “intra-regional trade centered on Singapore” was one of the important ways for the whole region to connect with Western trade in this era. Therefore, first we need to investigate the volume and trend of this regional trade through a statistical analysis, in order to figure out its precise significance for the boost in Southeast Asian trade. In a statistical analysis of intra-regional trade, we use trade statistics not only for Singapore but also for other British colonial ports and Dutch Java, because we assume that those colonial ports provided the region with a connection to Western long-distance trade as well as Singapore. Through the combined use of colonial trade statistics in this way, we can understand the quantitative importance of intra-regional trade for the expansion of Southeast Asian trade for the first time.

Second, there are studies (Wright 1961; Reid 2009) considering the influx of European cotton goods as a new commodity into the region from the second decade of the nineteenth century. In those studies, it is mentioned that European cotton goods replaced Indian cotton, which had been a staple since the sixteenth century. Above all, it is worth paying attention to the argument over the Dutch protectionist tariff policies against­British cotton goods in Dutch Java. Alfons van der Kraan (1998) describes how the Netherlands attempted to drive out British cotton goods from Java to corner the market for the domestic cotton industry. According to his argument, the Netherlands levied high tariffs on imports of British cotton into the Dutch possessions. Further discriminatory tariffs were imposed on imports of British cotton via Singapore, because of Singapore’s entrepôt function of distributing British cotton goods across the region. As a result, Dutch cotton goods, backed by industrialization at home, took a commanding share in the market for cotton textiles in Java. Studies such as the above suggest that parts of Southeast Asia were exposed to the competition among European states after the Napole­onic Wars, and that the resurgence of Southeast Asian trade during this period was due partly to the impact of Western industrialization. Nevertheless, the influence of the high Dutch tariff on intra-regional trade—particularly trade between Singapore and islands under Dutch influence, other than Java and Madura—has not been discussed in detail. We can therefore neither evaluate the function of Singapore in the influx of European cotton goods nor figure out comprehensively the impact of cotton-manufactured goods on the expansion of Southeast Asian trade. The fourth section attempts to fill this gap.

In addition to cotton goods, we pay attention to the role of the distribution of regional products in the growth of intra-regional trade. Eric Tagliacozzo (2004) pays attention to exports of Southeast Asian marine goods to China during 1780–1860 and discusses the role of Singapore as an entrepôt for such products imported from surrounding islands and exported to China. In Penang and Singapore, Western traders took advantage of the distribution of regional products to access the Chinese market and obtained tea and silk for the West. Jennifer Cushman (1993) studies Siamese trade in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and shows that exports from Siam were composed mostly of various bulky (low value per unit of weight) goods, especially for the Chinese market. She observes how some of those exports went to Singapore in exchange for British and Indian cotton piece goods, indicating the involvement of Singapore in traditional commodity flows. These arguments show the role that the British colonial port of Singapore played in the flow of regional products in Asian markets, suggesting that a combination of traditional circulation and Western advance boosted Southeast Asian trade during this period. How, specifically, did these regional products and European cotton goods representing the Western advance relate to each other? Without clarifying this point, we cannot sufficiently figure out the role of the distribution of regional products in the Western advance. The fifth section demonstrates that the distribution of Asian market-oriented products in Singapore facilitated the influx of European cotton goods into the region.

The Growth of Intra-regional Trade from the 1820s to 1852

Statistical Approach to Southeast Asian Trade
This section defines the concept of Southeast Asian trade on the basis of the trade statistics of Western colonies. As far as Southeast Asia is concerned, the trade statistics of Dutch Java and the British Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca, and Singapore) are the most important available sources, and these four colonies seem to have occupied the largest part of Western long-distance trade in Southeast Asia during this period.1) Therefore, we focus on the trade of British and Dutch colonies and define “intra-regional trade centered on British and Dutch colonies” from trade statistics. First, we look at the coverage of trade statistics and trade structures for British and Dutch colonies from the 1820s to 1852.

Table 1 shows exports from British and Dutch colonies to each regional division, classified as intra-regional (exports to “Southeast Asia” as today’s geographical unit), to Asia (exports to Asia other than Southeast Asia), and to the West (exports to Europe and America) from 1828 to 1852. In those days, the most common currency in Southeast Asia was the Spanish dollar, a silver coin from the American continent, so other units of account have been converted to this denomination throughout the paper.2) As for the period for which trade statistics are available, we can use the data for exports from Singapore to individual places from 1823, and those for Java from 1825, while the first years for Penang and Malacca are 1828 and 1836 respectively. After 1843, trade statistics for all four ports are available. The year 1852 is chosen as the final year in this table because the trade of Java and the Straits Settlements increased drastically afterward. It follows that 1852 is the final year showing the tendency and structure of trade in the first half of the nineteenth century. The year 1844 is set as the middle year between 1836 and 1852. In the following statistical analysis, the four years 1828, 1836, 1844, and 1852 are referred to as benchmark years. In addition, because the trade statistics of Penang and Malacca before 1843 do not distinguish between merchandise and treasure (bullion and coin) in trade value, the trade of the four colonies is shown as a combined value that includes both.

Table 1 Exports of British and Dutch Colonies to Each Region (Spanish Dollars)


From Table 1, we can see the trade structure of each colony. First, Dutch Java was occupied by Britain in 1811 in the midst of the disorder arising from the Napoleonic Wars. After five years of British rule, Dutch rule resumed in 1816, and the entire island became a Dutch possession after the Java War (1825–30). The trade statistics for Dutch Java (De Bruijn Kops 1857; 1858) used in this paper are the aggregation of trade of all Dutch ports located in Java and Madura. Trade within Java and Madura is excluded from these statistics. According to Table 1, exports from Java to the Netherlands shows the volume to have been of substantial size, due to the increase in exports of coffee and sugar by the Dutch-controlled Cultivation System in Java from the early 1830s. Nevertheless, intra-regional exports maintained a constant share, above 15 percent, during this period.

Next, trade statistics for Singapore (Tabular Statements, Singapore) were published by the missionary press and the Bengal colonial government.3) In the trade structure of Singapore, exports to Western countries had the largest share, nearly 40 percent in 1828; but after that date, intra-regional exports and exports to Asia became greater. Intra-regional exports stayed at 30–40 percent, and their absolute value increased steadily during this period.

Founded in 1786 by the British on islands along the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, Penang soon became the hub of the “country trade.” The year 1826 saw the establishment of the Straits Settlements, headquartered in Penang. The Bengal colonial govern­ment published the trade statistics for Penang (Tabular Statements, Penang) after 1843. From Table 1, we see that exports from Penang increased in the second half of the 1840s, and more often than not, Penang’s intra-regional exports constituted nearly 60 percent.

Malacca became a British port under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, and it was integrated into the Straits Settlements in 1826. The Bengal administration officially published trade statistics for Malacca (Tabular Statements, Malacca) from 1843. According to Table 1, the volume of Malaccan trade was small compared to the trade of other colonies, and the destinations of Malaccan exports were mostly intra-regional.

An important caveat on the combined use of trade statistics of British and Dutch colonies is that there is a difference of four months in the coverage of annual returns between them: Javanese annual trade statistics adopt the calendar year (January to December), whereas the statistics of the Straits Settlements adopt the official year (May to April). Although this makes it difficult to compare numerical values in detail or to analyze the seasonality of trade, it is still possible to examine the rough structure and general trends of trade by a combined use of trade statistics for the four colonies. In the following, the four sets of trade statistics are aggregated as they are for the quantitative analysis of Southeast Asian trade.

Fig. 1 shows the participants in Southeast Asian trade in the British and Dutch colonies, as well as the size of trade in each location. The trade values (imports and exports), which are circled in the figure, are an aggregate of the values of the four benchmark years in Table 1. Places that are difficult to identify consistently and which show relatively small trade values are excluded from the figure.4) We can see that the main participants in trade were Burma, Siam, and Cochinchina on the mainland, and Manila, the Malay Peninsula, Riau, Borneo, Sumatra, Celebes, the Moluccas, and Bali in insular Southeast Asia.


Fig. 1 Southeast Asia in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (100,000 Spanish Dollars)
Sources: This map was made by the author on the basis of the map in Moor (1837). The trade data were taken from Table 1.
Note: Burma Konbaung Dynasty has ceded Arracan and Tenasserim provinces to Britain in 1826.

Fig. 2 is a conceptual diagram of intra-regional trade centered on British and Dutch colonies, designed to show the ways in which the volume of intra-regional trade was calculated. In this figure, trade relations among the four Western colonies are placed in the center, and the trade relationships with places appearing in Fig. 1 are indicated with arrows. Manila, the Moluccas, and Cochinchina, which show small trade values and little change, are grouped together as “Others.” In this diagram, the position of each place does not indicate the geographical location as indicated in Fig. 1. All arrows appearing in this figure indicate intra-regional trade. In other words, this diagram does not include such regional trade as trade between islands (for instance, Borneo and Celebes), the coastal trade of each location, or trade between port and hinterland via river. Thus, the coverage of intra-regional trade centered on British and Dutch colonies is limited to seaborne trade between the four Western colonies and the principal Southeast Asian locations.


Fig. 2 Conceptual Diagram of Intra-regional Trade Centered on British and Dutch Colonies

In Fig. 2, trade among the Straits Settlements is excluded to avoid a double counting of major commodities contributing to the growth of intra-regional trade. As is discussed later, the growth in intra-regional trade was based in part on opium and cotton piece goods, and those commodities accounted for a large part of the trade among the Straits Settlements. If we were to include trade among the Straits Settlements, trade in one article would be counted twice because this trade was composed mostly of entrepôt trade. For instance, cotton piece goods imported from Britain to Singapore were (1) exported to Penang and then (2) reexported from Penang to Sumatra. It follows that there is a double counting in the export and reexport of cotton piece goods in intra-regional trade. Although there would have been commodities consumed in the Straits Settlements, it can be assumed that a double counting of those major commodities would prevent the accurate estimation of intra-regional trade. Therefore, trade among the Straits Settlements has not been included in this conceptual diagram.

Fig. 3 is a conceptual diagram of trade with Asia and with the West centered on British and Dutch colonies. The left arrows with solid lines show the trade of British and Dutch colonies with India and China, representing “trade with Asia.”5) Likewise, the right arrows with solid lines represent “trade with the West” (Europe and America) centered on British and Dutch colonies. These do not represent the entire Southeast Asian trade with Asia and the West but only the trade of British and Dutch colonies with these regions. Accordingly, in Fig. 3, four colonies are set inside the box representing Southeast Asia.


Fig. 3 Conceptual Diagram of Trade with Asia and with the West Centered on British and Dutch Colonies

Estimation of Southeast Asian Trade from 1828 to 1852
Let us now calculate the value of intra-regional trade, trade with Asia, and trade with the West as defined above. In order to obtain the sum of intra-regional trade, while we use only export figures to calculate the trade between the four colonies and their Southeast Asian trade counterparts, we need to use both export and import figures. Thus, we need to convert import values to an export-price basis by deflating 7 percent from import values, as an approximate percentage, representing the difference between F.O.B. (Free on Board) and C.I.F. (Cost, Insurance, and Freight) values (see Sugihara 2009, 144). For trade with Asia and trade with the West, we take both export and import figures from the trade statistics for the British and Dutch colonies. Fig. 4 shows the calculated results.


Fig. 4 Intra-regional Trade, Trade with Asia, Trade with the West, and Java Trade with the Netherlands (Million Spanish Dollars)
Sources: See Table 1, and Penang (1837: SSR, V7; 1839 and 1840: SSR, V8; after 1842: Tabular Statements, Penang), Malacca (1837: SSR, V7; 1839 and 1840: SSR, V8; after 1842: Tabular Statements, Malacca).

In Fig. 4, trade with the West is calculated, separating Java’s trade with the Nether­lands as an independent branch of trade because its value was too large to aggregate. Java’s trade with the Netherlands soared from approximately 5 million dollars in 1828 to above 20 million dollars in 1852. In addition, trade with the West increased gradually from about 5 million to 10 million dollars. In contrast, trade with Asia fluctuated but remained at around 10 million dollars during this period. Intra-regional trade increased from approximately 8 million to 16 million dollars during this period. It follows that there was a growth in intra-regional trade from the 1820s to 1852 because there were no remarkable price rises or any significant inflation in the region at the time (Lindblad 2002, 92). Furthermore, from Fig. 4 we can see that intra-regional trade maintained a larger volume than trade with the West and exceeded trade with Asia during this period. Although it is worth noting the rapid increase in Java’s trade with the Netherlands under the Dutch-controlled Cultivation System, intra-regional trade also showed remarkable growth. It may be assumed that Western merchants found it more difficult to join in intra-regional trade than trade with Asia and the West, because it must have been difficult for them to obtain competitive knowledge about commercial customs, navigation routes, and vernaculars. Thus, the growth in intra-regional trade seems to have been based largely on the activities of local merchants.

From Fig. 5, showing the intra-regional trade of individual colonies, we can see that the trade values of Java and Singapore were considerably larger than those of Penang and Malacca, and that these trade values increased on a similar scale from 1828 to 1840. During this period, Singapore’s intra-regional trade increased 40 percent and Java’s 90 percent. After 1840, while Singapore appeared to be stagnant from 1839 to 1846, Java’s intra-regional trade increased until 1844. Java then saw a decline in its intra-regional trade after 1844, whereas trade of the Straits Settlements increased. From 1828 to 1844, Java was vitally important for the growth of intra-regional trade, although Singapore increased its trade as well. The Straits Settlements, particularly Singapore, played a central role in the growth of intra-regional trade from 1845 to 1852.


Fig. 5 Intra-regional Trade of British and Dutch Colonies (Million Spanish Dollars)
Source: See Fig. 4.

Let us now look at changes in the regional structure of intra-regional trade to see the changes in trade relationships. Figs. 6 to 9 show the trade values of each place in intra-regional trade for 1828, 1836, 1844, and 1852. First, we can see that the trade values between Dutch Java and the Straits Settlements in the central circle did not show any tendency to increase throughout these years, although there was a temporary increase in 1844. Therefore, the growth of intra-regional trade during this period is not attributable to the expansion of trade between British and Dutch colonies. According to Figs. 6 and 7, Dutch Java increased its trade with Sumatra, Borneo, and Bali from 1828 to 1836, while the change in the volume of trade was small for the Straits Settlements during this period. A comparison between Figs. 7 and 8 suggests that Dutch Java boosted trade with Sumatra and Borneo from 1836 to 1844 and that exports to Riau increased as well. The Straits Settlements could not expand trade with places in the archipelago, although its trade with Burma and the Malay Peninsula increased slightly during this period. When comparing Figs. 8 and 9, we see an increase in the Straits Settlements’ trade from 1844 to 1852, and that the geographical expansion of its trade reached the whole of Southeast Asia. Specifically, trade with Siam and Burma on the mainland increased rapidly, as did trade with the neighboring Malay Peninsula and ­Sumatra and the eastern islands of Celebes and Borneo. In other words, from 1828 to 1844 Dutch Java expanded its intra-regional trade with the archipelago under Dutch influence; and afterward the Straits Settlements, with Singapore at the head, extended trade relationships to the whole region, including the Dutch sphere of influence. This resulted in the growth of intra-regional trade, with a shift in focus from Java to Singapore.


Fig. 6 Intra-regional Trade in 1828 (10,000 Spanish Dollars)
Source: See Table 1.
Notes: Import and export values of each region outside the large central circle are shown in two figures, distinguishing trade with Java and trade with the Straits Settlements wherever possible. Thus Sumatra’s imports, for example, are shown as 30/82, indicating that it imported 300,000 dollars from Java and 820,000 dollars from the Straits Settlements, while exports are shown as 34/70, similarly indicating values for two destinations.
* Exports from Java to Singapore include exports to Penang and Malacca.


Fig. 7 Intra-regional Trade in 1836 (10,000 Spanish Dollars)
Source: See Table 1.
Note: See Fig. 6.


Fig. 8 Intra-regional Trade 1844 (10,000 Spanish Dollars)
Source: See Table 1.
Note: See Fig. 6.


Fig. 9 Intra-regional Trade 1852 (10,000 Spanish Dollars)
Source: See Table 1.
Note: See Fig. 6. After 1847, trade with Riau and Bali cannot be distinguished in trade statistics of Singapore; therefore, they are together in this figure.

The Development of British and Dutch Tariff Policies

This section discusses the development of British and Dutch tariff policies in order to comprehend the background of the growth of intra-regional trade. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty, concluded in March 1824, fixed British and Dutch spheres of influence in Southeast Asia, with a powerful influence on intra-regional trade.

The United Kingdom, possessing a sphere of influence north of the Malacca Straits, increased its political and economic influence in Southeast Asia through the establishment of the Straits Settlements—Penang, Malacca, and Singapore—as the basis of its activities (Webster 1998, Chapter 4). Its main driving force was the interests of British industry and commerce, vitalized by the Industrial Revolution, particularly the cotton industry. With the adoption of free trade policies, the Straits Settlements prospered as hubs for Asian traders who imported regional products and exported cotton goods to surrounding ports. Straits Settlements merchants, who earned profits from the distribution of cotton goods, were eager to support the policy of free trade (Webster 2011).

Meanwhile, the Netherlands, possessing a sphere of influence south of the Malacca Straits, had been pursuing the colonization of Java since 1816 and constructing a modern nation at home with the enormous wealth drawn from its colony. After the Napoleonic Wars, the addition of Flanders to the new nation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was approved by the Vienna Protocol in 1816. The Netherlands adopted protectionist policies in its colonies to guarantee the interests of the flourishing domestic Flemish cotton industry (Van der Kraan 1998, 18–21), while adopting free trade policies at home to accommodate the interests of the entrepôt trade of Amsterdam (Wright 1955, 154–155). This tariff policy imposed over the area of Dutch influence became a barrier against the inflow of British cotton goods.

The starting point for Dutch cotton tariffs was the Textile Ordinance decreed by the Netherlands government in February 1824, setting a high tariff rate against British ­cotton goods (BPP 1840, 13). The Javanese cloth market had been overwhelmed by British cotton goods until the return of Java to the Dutch in 1816. Afterward, in order to maintain the market for the Flemish cotton industry, the Netherlands imposed an import duty of 25 percent on foreign European cotton goods, especially targeting British goods shipped directly from Britain, and 35 percent if they came via an Asian port—the latter was ­generally the case because British cotton goods were usually imported via Calcutta or Singapore. This high tariff had the desired effect: the influx of British cotton goods into Java diminished, while imports of Belgian goods, which bore no duty, increased in their share of cotton goods imported into Java—from 2.5 percent in 1823 to 70 percent in 1829 (Muller 1857, 84–91; Posthumus 1921, 90–93).

The British government made diplomatic protests against this Dutch protectionism on the basis of Article 2 of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 (BPP 1840, 2–3). According to this treaty, the two nations had agreed to the following: the vessels of one nation entering a port in the Eastern Seas belonging to the other nation would not pay more than double the duty on the vessels of the nation that controlled the port, and if no duty was imposed on the vessels of that nation, the charge on the vessels of the other nation would not exceed 6 percent. In other words, the imposition of high tariffs of 25 percent and 35 percent on British cotton goods was in complete violation of the treaty, because there were no duties on Dutch cotton goods in any Dutch colony. In response to Britain’s protests, the Netherlands insisted that the Anglo-Dutch Treaty was concerned with the nationality of ships and did not make stipulations regarding the origin of products (Posthumus 1921, 262–263, 448), and generally, high tariffs were maintained throughout the 1820s.

The British government’s protests were in the interests of two parties: British merchants who exported cotton goods directly from Britain to Southeast Asia and whose main target was Java, and local British merchants based in the Straits Settlements who could benefit from the reexport of British cotton goods to surrounding regions. Since British diplomatic protests were made in defense of different interests, we will deal with each development in turn.

The first group that was served by British protests was British merchants at home. In Java, British cotton goods began to circulate under British rule and maintained a dominant share among total imports of cotton goods until 1823 (Van der Kraan 1998, 11). The high tariff set by the Textile Ordinance of 1824 reduced the imports of British cotton goods and helped to increase imports of Belgian cotton goods into Java. However, as a result of the secession of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1830, the Netherlands lost the Flemish cotton industry and could no longer export domestic cotton goods to Java; British merchants immediately took advantage of this to increase their exports of cotton goods to Java. For a time, the share of British cotton goods among total imports of cotton goods into Java was above 90 percent (Muller 1857, 84–91; Van der Kraan 1998, 24–25), which led to an optimistic view among British merchants even in the face of the Dutch protectionist policy. As the Dutch government began to nurture the domestic cotton industry in the 1830s, however, the British sensed the urgency of the situation, and protests against Dutch tariffs strengthened after 1833 (BPP 1840, 66–73). In May 1836, the Dutch government gave in and raised the tariff rate on Dutch cotton goods from zero to 12.5 percent, while maintaining the tariff rate of 25 percent on British cotton goods, following Article 2 of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty.6)

In addition, in October 1837 the Dutch government reduced the tariff rate of 35 percent on British cotton goods imported via Asian ports to 25 percent, the same as direct imports from Britain (ibid., 187; Posthumus 1921, 485). Nevertheless, these alterations in Dutch tariff policy during the 1830s did not improve the institutional base of intra-regional trade, as we shall see below.

Second, we take up the development of tariff policies based on the interests of ­British merchants in the Straits Settlements. The British diplomatic protests during the 1830s did not explicitly mention the high tariff of 35 percent imposed on the Straits Settlements because the Netherlands charged the tariff even on Dutch ships importing European cotton goods through the Straits Settlements (BPP 1840, 63). For instance, if a Dutch ship brought Dutch cotton goods from Singapore to a Dutch-ruled port, the ship had to pay a tariff of 35 percent, following Article 2 of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty. In fact, however, there was no need for Dutch cotton goods to go through Singapore.

The commerce of British merchants based in the Straits Settlements who earned profits from reexporting British cotton goods to surrounding areas was severely affected by the Dutch discriminatory tariff, levied not only on Java but also on Dutch-ruled ports located on the west coast of Sumatra, Borneo, and Celebes (Moor 1837, 173–174). Singaporean merchants were eager to plead their case with the home government, publishing protests in newspapers in the 1830s, but in vain (SC, May 12, 1825; BPP 1840, 63, 161–162).

To make matters worse for merchants in the Straits Settlements, in 1834 the Dutch government implemented a prohibitive tariff of 70 percent on imports of European cotton goods via the Straits Settlements as a wartime decree during the Belgian Revolution (BPP 1842, 15). Although the Netherlands insisted that this new tariff policy was aimed at driving out Belgian cotton goods from Dutch possessions, in reality imports of British cotton goods into Dutch possessions were levied the prohibitive tariff (ibid., 53–54). Furthermore, in 1834 port regulation was also decreed by the Batavian government, declaring that foreign European cotton goods would not be permitted to enter the Dutch possessions unless they were first imported into the principal ports of Java, limited to Batavia, Semarang, and Surabaya (BPP 1840, 74–75). In other words, exports of cotton goods from Singapore to Dutch possessions in Sumatra, Borneo, and Celebes were completely banned, and this severely damaged the entrepôt function of Singapore. As a result, the amount of British cotton goods imported from the Straits Settlements to the Dutch territory was considerably reduced. The British home government could not judge accurately whether the regulations implemented by the Netherlands for trade in the Dutch possessions were a violation of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty or not, because those decrees were not published in Europe (ibid., 71).

This discriminatory Dutch tariff spurred further complaints from local British merchants, bringing the problem to the top of the British diplomatic priority list in the early 1840s (SFP, April 5, 1838; June 20, 1839; July 18, 1839; September 26, 1839; BPP 1842, 2–3, 21, 54). In 1841, Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister, officially lodged a protest with the Dutch government concerning the discriminatory tariff and the port regulation of 1834; the Dutch government responded immediately, declaring officially that the prohibitively high tariff and the port regulation as a wartime decree had been abolished in October 1839. Thus, by reducing the tariff to 25 percent, per the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty (BPP 1842, 40–43), the institutional basis for trade between the Straits Settlements and Dutch possessions was eventually set right.

Combination of the New Wave and Traditional Circulations

Commodity Compositions of the Intra-regional Trade of Singapore
In this section we focus on the trade of Singapore, because this colonial port played a leading role in the growth of intra-regional trade centered on British and Dutch colonies; this study will shed some light on commodity compositions to reveal the main driving force for the growth of Singapore’s intra-regional trade. Tables 2 to 6 show the com­modity compositions of the imports and exports of Singapore with its main intra-regional trade counterparts—Siam, the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Celebes, and Borneo—which accounted for approximately 60–70 percent of the intra-regional trade of Singapore. In these tables, the top 10 items are listed in the four benchmark years listed earlier (1835 has been substituted for 1836 due to a lack of sources).

Table 2 Imports and Exports of Singapore with Siam (Spanish Dollars)


Table 3 Imports and Exports of Singapore with the East Coast of the Malay Peninsula (Spanish Dollars)


Table 4 Imports and Exports of Singapore with Sumatra (Spanish Dollars)


Table 5 Imports and Exports of Singapore with Celebes (Spanish Dollars)


Table 6 Imports and Exports of Singapore with Borneo (Spanish Dollars)


First, let us look at the commodity composition of imports to see what kind of regional products were brought into Singapore. Generally, each location had a few leading items that took a significant share of the imports into Singapore, such as sugar from Siam; tin or gold dust from the east coast of the Malay Peninsula; coffee or gutta-percha (a sort of resin) from Sumatra; tortoiseshell, Malay cotton goods, or coffee from Celebes; and gold dust from Borneo. Although products demanded in Europe—such as sugar, coffee, and tin—stand out on this list, it is worth noting that some of the leading items were traded for Asian markets. For instance, marine goods such as tortoiseshell, sea cucumber, and pearl shells from Celebes were exported to China via Singapore ­(Tagliacozzo 2004, 31). After the leading items, various regional products are listed in the tables; they were an important component of imports as a whole. They were primarily preferred by Asian consumers rather than meeting European demand. Presumably, trade in these Asian market-oriented products had been nurtured before the nineteenth century,7) which suggests that the growth in Singapore trade was not only brought about by European demand but was also based on traditional Asian trade.

According to the commodity composition of exports in the tables, cotton goods and opium were the leading items of export from Singapore to the main Southeast Asian locations. Opium took a large share among the exports to the east coast of the Malay Peninsula and Celebes, but less so in exports to Siam, Sumatra, and Borneo. When it comes to the export of cotton goods, the general trend was that European cotton goods replaced Indian cotton during this period, but there was a difference between areas. When it came to exports to the Gulf of Siam (Siam and the east coast of the Malay ­Peninsula), European cotton goods surpassed Indian cotton by 1835, although the export value of Malay cotton goods was larger than that of European cotton goods to the east coast. On the other hand, the archipelago (Sumatra, Celebes, and Borneo) maintained a constant volume of Indian cotton goods until the middle of the 1840s; European cotton goods overwhelmed Indian cotton in the late 1840s. Presumably, these geographical differences can be partly explained by the influence of high Dutch tariffs on imports of British cotton goods into the Dutch-ruled ports of Sumatra, Celebes, and Borneo. Exports of European cotton goods from Singapore to areas under Dutch influence could not expand readily due to the high tariffs. This allowed Indian cotton goods to maintain their dominance in the region, which had endured since the sixteenth century.8) Consequently, the exports of European cotton goods from Singapore to the archipelago expanded after the lifting of high Dutch tariffs against Singapore in the early 1840s.

In addition, as we can see from the gray-highlighted cells indicating the export of regional products, commodities imported from Southeast Asian locations were reexported to intra-regional locations via Singapore. In the case of Siam, forest products, such as rattan and beeswax, produced mainly in tropical forests on islands (Crawfurd 1820, 423, 438), were supplied through Singapore constantly, which means that there was a regional market based on supply and demand in forest goods within the region. Likewise, gambier exported to Celebes was used as a gum for chewing betel, a favorite item among locals, and tobacco produced mainly in Java was consumed across insular Southeast Asia (ibid., 416–417). Ironware (including hardware and cutlery) imported from Siam—the iron industry in northern Siam flourished to meet regional demand in the early nineteenth century (Li 2004b, 78)—was reexported from Singapore throughout insular Southeast Asia. When it comes to the constant export of salt to Sumatra, because the Dutch colonial authorities implemented the monopoly system for salt across the west coast of Sumatra after the 1820s, the Minangkabau, the people of the hinterland, preferred Siamese salt, imported from the east coast of Sumatra via Singapore, to high-priced Java salt (Dobbin 1983, 100–101). In any case, although the trade value of each regional product was tiny compared to the value of cotton piece goods and opium brought from outside the area, the circulation of regional products within the region through Singapore was closely related to the ordinary lives of locals. Presumably, as exports of European cotton goods from Singapore increased, imports of regional products in exchange for them also increased, including reexports not just to the West but also to Asia. Thus, exports of European cotton goods boosted intra-regional trade not only by connecting with Western long-distance trade directly through providing regional products for European demand, but also by promoting the internal distribution of Asian market-oriented products via Singapore.

The Role of Chinese Middlemen in Singapore
This section explores the role of Chinese middlemen in Singapore who intermediated the trade in cotton piece goods between Western merchants and local traders, for the growth of intra-regional trade.

In Singapore, European agency houses were the main importers of cotton goods, and their number increased from 14 in 1827 to 36 in 1855 (Wong 1960, 167). These firms sold European cotton goods as agents of Western firms and exported regional products to the West in return (Lee 1978, 14–15). Agency houses were required to sell European cotton goods to local Asian traders gathering in Singapore and to buy from them regional products for European markets. To undertake this business, European agency houses needed the cooperation of middlemen.

In Singapore, Western—especially British—merchants were unfamiliar with the local Asian way of doing business. Similarly, local traders, such as Malays and Bugis, had less experience in communicating with Western merchants, so Chinese middlemen played an important role as intermediaries between them. Overall, Malacca Chinese, or Baba, who were locally born and capable of speaking English as well as the vernacular, acted as middlemen (Earl 1837, 415).

In those days, although barter trade was common in the Singapore market owing to the scarcity of specie, European agency houses could dispose of cotton goods on a large scale by credit sale and generally issued promissory notes for a two-month credit period to Chinese middlemen who delivered in return not money but regional products (Wong 1960, 163). Credit sale imposed high risks on Western merchants, however, because the merchants loaned their capital to middlemen in advance. In those days, practice did not conform strictly to rules. Promissory notes were taken as payable, nominally, in two to three months’ time, but in many instances when the middlemen could not pay back within the credit period, the credit was actually extended to six months (SC, May 22, 1828; Phipps 1835, 269; Wong 1960, 163). For European firms, the collection of capital was unstable, and in the meantime they were exposed to the risk of failure to collect. According to the commercial newspaper in Singapore, Chinese merchants often went back to China without repaying their debts to Western merchants (SC, August 13, 1829). Furthermore, the law courts did not work well in preventing debtors from defaulting, although there were trials regarding credit sales (ibid., May 22, 1828; August 12, 1830). In 1827 a law court opened in the Straits Settlements, headquartered in Penang, but only one judge was appointed to court and he was stationed in Penang almost all year long; his trips to Singapore were not regular (Turnbull 1972, 56–57). Under the circumstances, trials in Singapore did not proceed smoothly, and debtors recognized that confiscation of property was not executed properly even if the debt was overdue (Buckley 1902, 239). It is presumed that formal institutions such as a judicial system were inadequate to protect the business of European firms in Singapore. As a result, Chinese merchants serving in administrative positions and possessing property in Singapore were selected as trustworthy middlemen by Western merchants. In this way, Chinese middlemen succeeded in their business in Singapore.

Chinese middlemen in Singapore did not specialize in the intermediary business for European agency houses but dealt in various kinds of products on their own account to meet the demand of local Asian traders. Table 7 shows the commodities handled by Tan Kim Ching and Tan Kim Seng, extracted from the Straits Times, which published the lists of merchandise imported and exported by European ships (square-rigged vessels) in Singapore from January to June of 1851. They were famous and wealthy Fujian Chinese of Malaccan background residing in Singapore who performed the role of middlemen for Western merchants (Song 1902, 46, 62, 66, 91–92; Yen 1986, 183–184). From Table 7 we learn that both merchants handled a variety of Southeast Asian products. In addition, the table shows the percentage (by value) of Western products, Indian and Chinese products, and Southeast Asian products handled by each merchant among the imports and exports in Singapore in 1851, calculated from trade statistics of Singapore, adjusting for consistency of products’ names. Southeast Asian products listed in Tan Kim Ching’s merchandise took up 24 percent of imports and 33 percent of exports in Singapore; those of Tan Kim Seng were 24 percent and 29 percent. These figures are comparable to the shares taken up by Western products and Indian and Chinese products respectively in the trade conducted by both merchants. Presumably, both merchants purchased those regional products from local traders coming to Singapore, as part of their intermediary business. There were, however, articles not only for European markets, such as sugar, tin, and coffee, but also goods for China, such as birds’ nest and sea cucumber, and for local markets, such as tobacco, betel nut, and rice. In other words, Chinese middlemen did not merely conduct the intermediary business of cotton goods for Western merchants but also intermediated between various local traders gathering in Singapore by handling a variety of products, including Asian market-oriented products. Thus, the intermediary business of Chinese middlemen functioned to integrate various parts of the Singapore trade, such as trade with the West, trade with Asia, and intra-regional trade. The business of middlemen could multilaterally connect trading entities centered on Singapore.

Table 7 Commodity Compositions Dealt in by Tan Kim Ching and Tan Kim Seng in 1851


The Function of Multilateral Trade Relationships in Singapore
This section discusses the function of those multilateral trade relationships for the growth of Singapore’s intra-regional trade. First, we examine the business relationships between Chinese middlemen and local traders through the case of transactions between Chinese merchants and Bugis traders in the Singapore market.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, local Bugis traders engaged in trade between Singapore and the eastern islands, such as Borneo, Celebes, and Bali (SC, December 16, 1830; Moor 1837, 13; Davidson 1846, 56–57). Previous studies (Lineton 1975; Andaya 1995) discuss the fact that Bugis immigrants were scattered all over the archipelago, and they have revealed the extensive trading activities based on their diasporas in the eighteenth century. Until the early 1860s, the arrival of Bugis traders in the September-to-November period was a crucial influence on the market conditions of Singapore.9) Presumably, Bugis traders mastered the market in the eastern islands, so it could have been efficient for Chinese middlemen in Singapore to depend on the activities of Bugis in order to distribute cotton goods and obtain regional products. A European traveler wrote this description (Davidson 1846, 56–57) of a transaction between Chinese merchants and Bugis traders at the bazaar in Singapore in the 1840s:

On the arrival of a boat, her nakoda (or commander) lands with nearly every man on board; and he may be seen walking all over the place for a few days before making any bargain. . . . They [Bugis] are, however, always received with a hearty welcome by the Chinese of the Island [Singapore], who, inviting them to be seated, immediately hand round the siri-box (betel-nut, arica leaf, &c.) among them; and over this universal luxury, they will sit and talk on business matters for hours, during which time it may be fairly calculated that both host and guests tell a lie per minute, without betraying by their countenances the slightest consciousness of having been thus engaged. This strange sort of preliminary negotiation goes on, probably, for a week; at the end of which the passer-by [Bugis] may see the contents of the different Bugis boats entering the Chinese shops or stores, as the case may be.

From this description, first, we see that interaction with Bugis traders required experience and expertise with local commerce and a knowledge of the vernacular; this resulted in a situation in which Chinese middlemen who possessed these abilities engaged in transactions with local Bugis traders. Through this transaction with Bugis in the market, Chinese merchants could complete their intermediary business in European cotton goods.

The transaction in European cotton goods between Chinese middlemen and Bugis traders was closely related to the multilateral trade relationships in Singapore. The transactions were based on an exchange of cotton goods for regional products imported by Bugis traders, and as the commodity compositions of imports from Celebes in Table 5 show, most of the imports were Asian market-oriented products. Therefore, they could not strike a bargain in regional products without the export routes to Asian markets, and as a result European cotton goods were not exported as well.

Let us now look at this circuit of regional products for Asian markets in Singapore in the case of the trade in birds’ nests and sea cucumber, imported from the eastern islands and mostly exported to China. Table 8 shows the quantities of monthly imports and exports of birds’ nests and sea cucumber for Singapore from 1831 to 1832. As can be seen from the gray-highlighted cells indicating the largest quantity of imports and exports in each year, a large amount of both articles were imported in September and October, which was the high season for the arrival of Bugis traders from the remote eastern islands with the southwest monsoon. However, according to the table, exports of both articles concentrated on the season from May to August. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Chinese junks arrived at Singapore in January with the northeast monsoon, and they purchased various articles, including regional products, from the Chinese merchants in Singapore. They then rode on the southwest monsoon in May and June to return to Chinese ports with their purchases (SC, April 23, 1829; April 28, 1831; Earl 1837, 365–367). Thus, there was a seasonal gap between imports and exports in birds’ nests and sea cucumber; a large amount of imports in October was exported in June of the next year. We assume that Chinese merchants in Singapore connected the imports of articles by Bugis with the exports by Chinese junks, storing them in their own warehouses. Thus, the multilateral trade relationships formed by Chinese middlemen supported the distribution of regional products for Chinese markets via Singapore.

Table 8 Quantities of Monthly Imports and Exports of Birds’ Nests and Sea Cucumbers in Singapore, 1831–32

Unit: Birds’ nests (Catty, 100 catties=1 picul), Sea cucumbers (Picul)


In the above case, we looked at the flow of commodities imported from within the region and exported externally, namely to China, but the function of the multilateral trade relationships is applicable to the internal circulation of regional products as well. For instance, Singapore’s intra-regional trade relationships seemed to function to facilitate the export of rattan collected in tropical forests in Sumatra to Siam and the export of Siamese salt to Sumatra through connections with both areas. The distribution system of regional products was reorganized through the multilateral trade relationships in Singapore, and the influx of European cotton goods, as the new wave from the external region, joined this flow via Singapore. Furthermore, we assume that traditional circulations could strengthen connections with Western trade through the confluence of European cotton and could respond to European demand more readily. In Table 4, for ­example, in 1852 the largest imports from Sumatra were of gutta-percha, a resin recognized for its utility as a gum in the 1840s and thus suddenly in demand in Europe. In other words, although one of the driving forces for the growth of Singapore’s intra-regional trade was certainly European cotton goods, the dynamic behind the new impetus to the growth of trade was a combination of a new wave of European cotton and the traditional circulations of regional products in Singapore.


This paper discussed the growth of intra-regional trade centered on British and Dutch colonies through a statistical analysis. In the first part, it showed that intra-regional trade increased with the shift in focus from Java to Singapore from the 1820s, and the intra-regional trade of Singapore grew with the extension of its trade relationships throughout Southeast Asia. This growth was attributed partly to the relaxation of high Dutch tariffs on British cotton goods imported via the Straits Settlements. The Dutch protectionist tariff policy, ignoring the Anglo-Dutch Treaty, considerably disrupted Singapore’s intra-regional trade with areas under Dutch influence. However, after the 1840s, with restrictions relaxed as a result of British diplomatic protests serving the interests of the Straits Settlements’ merchants, the institutional basis for intra-regional trade was set out in accordance with the Anglo-Dutch Treaty.

In the latter part, we analyzed the growth of Singapore’s intra-regional trade, examining in particular the function of multilateral trade relationships centered on middlemen. Chinese middlemen in Singapore dealt in various kinds of articles to intermediate between merchants coming to Singapore; they bought regional products from local traders in exchange for European cotton goods and not only delivered regional products to Western merchants but also sold them to Asian merchants. The expansion of the intra-regional export of European cotton goods from Singapore was conducted through multilateral trade relationships based on traditional commodity flows in Asia.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the expansion in Southeast Asian trade occurred under the advance of Western countries. The establishment of Singapore and the influx of European cotton goods were crucial factors in that expansion. However, the expansion of Singaporean trade occurred not only due to that external impact but also due to the activities of local merchants who responded to the new commercial opportunities and the reorganization of the distribution system of regional products there. This combination of Western influence and local response culminated in the development of intra-regional trade during this period, and this was one of the patterns of regional response to Western long-distance trade.

Accepted: August 19, 2013


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1) There are other statistical sources available: for Java’s coastal trade, see Ryuto Shimada’s paper; and for the trade of the Dutch Outer Islands, see Atsushi Ota’s paper—both in this focus.

2) Exchange rates are 1 Spanish dollar=2.1085 sicca rupees (1820s), 2.245 company rupees (1830–50s), 2.65 Dutch East Indies guilders (1820s), 2.55 guilders (1830–50s) (Cowan 1950, 21; Wong 1960, 8).

3) The government of the Straits Settlements was downgraded from a presidency, one administrative unit of the British East India Company, to a residency under the Bengal Presidency in 1830.

4) Places excluded are “Neighbouring islands” in the trade statistics of the Straits Settlements, and “Biliton,” “Kokos-Eilanden” (Cocos Islands), “Sandelhout Eiland en Flores” (Sumba Island and Flores), “Timor Delie” (Timor Dili), and “Timor Koepang” (Timor Kupang) in the trade statistics of Dutch Java.

5) For trade with Asia, we can consult the trade statistics of British India for the trade of Burma, Sumatra, and Manila with Indian ports (Bengal, Madras, and Bombay). Even if we add those trade values to “trade with Asia,” however, the share of the British and Dutch colonies of the total value turns out to be over 80 percent. Thus, the share of the British and Dutch colonies in “trade with Asia” is of central importance for the statistical analysis of Southeast Asia’s trade with other parts of Asia.

6) In fact, the Netherlands government entered the Secret Textile Contract with the Netherlands Trading Society, importing most Dutch cotton into Java, in which the full amount of 12.5 percent duty was to be refunded in the Netherlands to subsidize the Dutch textile industry (Van der Kraan 1998, 52).

7) Previous studies have discussed trade in marine and forest products, such as tortoiseshell (Ptak 1991) and birds’ nests (Blussé 1991) in Southeast Asia before the nineteenth century.

8) The tariff rate on imports of Indian cotton goods in Dutch possessions was 12.5 percent until 1837; afterward, it increased to 25 percent (BPP 1840, 78, 187).

9) See SFP, Report on the Market, November 29, 1852; September 30, 1853; October 20, 1857; October 5, 1859; November 21, 1861; September 19, 1862; November 21, 1864.