Singapore Haze, Raffles in Reverse and… Indonesia on our Doorstep
As far as Singapore goes, I feel I am doing a reverse Raffles on this trip.
In fact, I’m doing a reverse everything, as my book Silenced Voices (started in 2004, published in 2008) is already out there, and I am only going to Indonesia now, in 2015, to see what I missed… and I have missed much: this was an intense and emotional last week, and I haven’t been able to write, let alone, let it all sink in, but since many of you seem to be following this blog, I have wanted to get back in touch with you and tell you about our experiences.
So back to Raffles: most of you probably know he was the founder of Singapore, but how many of you know he got his real start in Java (and Sumatra?). Unlike Raffles, we start in Singapore (via Bangkok) and then head for Java.
Some call Singapore the Switzerland of Southeast Asia: it’s clean, prosperous and a tremendous financial hub. After the charming chaos of Bangkok, it was somewhat strange to land in Singapore (even the airport feels European– due, no doubt, to the fact that the people who designed Amsterdam’s airport Schiphol, also designed Singapore’s airport). As a cabbie drove us to the apartment where we were staying, I marveled at the manicured lawns and flowerbeds of this manufactured city of highrises and modernity.
The only cause for concern in this clean and efficient city where you can eat from the floor, starting in the airport (not that I would), was the “haze”. This haze has descended upon Singapore and elsewehere in the last seven years for several weeks on end and it’s coming from… Indonesia. Ever since palm oil has become a major commodity and the second largest source of revenue for Indonesia, the Indonesians have been burning down the rain forest (in Sumatra) to make room for palm tree oil plantations.
This year, the fires have gotten out of hand and have turned into actual forest fires which are hard to extinguish, triggering weeks of haze in Singapore, a health hazard that costs billions of dollars. During the two days that we were there, the haze was so bad that I felt disinclined to take pictures… while wandering through the city, Jon and I wondered whether this made the Singaporeans and others in Malaysia mad. We got our answer the second day: an elderly Singaporean lady started talking spontaneously to us in the street with an opening shot which she practically yelled at us: “What do you think of this haze?!” I don’t think she was interested in hearing our opinion, for she started venting almost immediately:
“I can’t go out. My husband has to stay in. We can’t breathe. Our eyes sting. And it’s been going on for the last seven years, for weeks on end. It’s those damn Indonesians. They’re evil. They don’t care we’re suffocating!”
She was mad as hell, and it felt she was going to hit someone, so we patiently listened, but then she smiled, her intonation becoming sugary sweet: “Where are you from?” She asked us.
When she heard we were from California, she blurted out her husband was from Fresno. Small word… And then she went back to bashing Indonesians.
The haze did affect us, too. My eyes started stinging and while half the city walked around with those mouth guards, as if they’re all going to do some open heart surgery while ambling into the subway system, I wondered how many packs of cigarettes equals one day of walking through the city with that kind of air quality. It got to us, too, so after touring the city and Jon reconnecting with colleagues from the Singapore office, we escaped into the colonial grandeur of the Raffles Hotel.
When Napoleon invaded Holland, the French got control of Indonesia (which is a misnomer, because the Dutch never even controlled all of Indonesia– it was mostly Java) and instated a Dutch governor and reformer, working under the French. Daendels was his name, and maybe his biggest accomplishment was improving Java’s infrastructure by means of his road, running from the western part of the island to the eastern part. De grote postweg or La grande route as it was called, was built for military purposes: the French were at war with Britain and expected Britain to invade (which they did) and the road was needed to bring in more troops and defend the island. There was little to no money, so Daendels used unpaid forced laborers which triggered a great many deaths.
Road or no road, this would not stop Raffles who had had his eye on Java for a long time: in a memo, he tried to convince his superior, writing that now that the “slack, tyrannous and degenerate Dutch” had lost control, there was an opportunity for the Brits to take over Java which was not only the “rice granary” of the East but its coffee, pepper, cotton, tobacco and indigo was so voluminous that it outdid any other rival in the region. He wanted to “annex” the island, a nice euphemism for wanting to take over the entire island.
Raffles got the green light when another Dutch governor working for the French (Janssens) had taken over from Daendels. In 1811, Raffles showed up at the coast with 100 vessels. Janssens was already in retreat at that point and the British entered Batavia (Jakarta) to find the city deserted but “store houses broken open” or in the words of Captain Taylor: “I do not exaggerate when I say that the streets were covered with coffee and pepper as with gravel and in other places quantities of sugar.” The battle was to ensue later and Janssens surrendered at Semarang. Raffles became Lt. Governor of the island on September 11th, 1811, leaving Dutch laws and officials in place but being far more enlightened than the Dutch in that he stopped the slave trade and outlawed the torture of prisoners.
Although Raffles lay for years in an unmarked grave and died more or less penniless, there’s lots of Raffles idolatry going on in Britain today. His founding of Singapore was a stroke of genius for sure, but he was an imperialist like any other (like his rival, the degenerate Dutch) ransacking and looting the kraton of the Sultan at Yogyakarta and, when being called back to England after the Dutch East Indies were returned to the Dutch after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he returned home with no less than 30 tons of Javanese artifacts.
On his return home, he actually stopped off to visit Napoleon at his maximum-security “prison”, St. Helena. Raffles was underwhelmed by the heavy and clumsy-looking general; one of his questions for Raffles was: “Is the Java coffee better than Bourbon?”
Java remained on Raffles’s mind; not only did he write a book about the island and did he think it was a huge mistake to hand back such resource-rich and strategic place like Java, he also truly seemed to love the island and the Javanese: “Nothing can be conceived more beautiful to the eye of the beholder, or more gratifying to the imagination than the prospect of the rich variety of hill and dale, of rich plantations and fruit trees or forests, of natural streams and artifical current […] The whole country, as seen from the mountains of considerable elevation appears a rich, diversified and well-watered garden, animated with villages, interspersed with the most luxuriant fields and covered with the freshest verdure.”
From his new post in Sumatra, which, on a clear day (lol), you can see from Singapore, Raffles founded Singapore on January 28th, 1819. He brought this about through the Treaty with Temenggong and 3000 Spanish dollars and port duties. There is a plaque where Raffles landed that says that “with genius and perception” he changed “the destiny of an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern Metropolis.” True enough, within three years of going on land, Raffles had turned a fishing hamlet into a large and affluent town of 10,000 people from various nations.
His splendid career came at a personal cost: not only did he lose his first wife Olivia while in Batavia (you can still find her large tombstone in Ancol in Jakarta), he outlived most of his kids and his body and brain were so wrecked by tropical infections and illnesses that he took mercury (!) for chronic and debilitating headaches.
Historian Niall Ferguson uses places like Singapore and New York as examples or the fact that, unlike the Dutch, the British excelled at leaving vibrant and independent societies after leaving: “Would New Amsterdam be the New York we know today if the Dutch had not surrendered it to the British in 1664? Might it not resemble more closely Bloemfontein, an authentic survivor of Dutch colonization?” Russell Shorto would disagree, as do I… but I digress…
Walking the pristine white corridors of the Raffles Hotel in search of the Long Bar (truly a Merchant Ivory movie this hotel…), I dwelled on that other and dark side of Singapore that one of our Dutch friends told us about over dinner the night before. Years ago, Singapore hit the US media when some daft American kid was going to be caned for spraypainting some graffiti. Drugs traffickers get the noose here and, as our friend told us, every hanging takes place on Friday morning but the condemned never get to hear which Friday morning…
On the day of our departure, I had a strange sickly sensation; was it the Singapore haze? Was it that malaria pill I took on an empty stomach or was it a stupendous fear about entering Indonesia, a country where my family once had deep roots but where some of them were killed, and eventually driven out like pariahs?
The flight to Surabaya was on time, and the Garuda stewardesses looked like Asian models. It was time to go.