Raffles in Southeast Asia: A multilayered exploration of the man, colonialism and re-looking our past

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Last week while I was back in Singapore I took the opportunity to visit the Raffles in Southeast Asia exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum. The exhibition coincided with Singapore’s bicentennial celebrations, a “celebration” that has been met with mixed reception because it commemorates the arrival of Raffles to Singapore, and hence the colonial period of Singapore.

The arrival of Raffles has traditionally been the start of beginning of the history of Singapore. This view has softened somewhat, due in no small part to Prof. John Miksic’s work on the archaeology of Singapore. With the discoveries at Fort Canning, school history books now acknowledge the Temasek period. Still, the idea of Raffles as founder of modern Singapore carries an air of preeminence and prestige, and some of the country’s top schools and institutions bear the name of Raffles.

The bicentennary, Raffles, the discourse of (de)colonisation and rejection of the ‘Big Man’ myth of Raffles all come together in this one exhibition. On one level, Singaporeans only learned about the Raffles who came to Singapore in 1819 but never knew the Raffles who was Governor of Java and his role in the rediscovery of Borobudur. Raffles never actually went to the now-Unesco world heritage site, but he commissioned the survey and is now credited for its discovery. This unearned claim to fame would be a recurrent theme in his career.

Plan of Borobudur, donated by to the British Museum by the great-grand-niece of Raffles but probably prepared by Hermann Cornelius, the Dutch engineer sent by Raffles to uncover the stupa.

The exhibition, through the lens of Raffles’ seminal History of Java and the items collected by Raffles and his contemporaries show a bias towards ancient Hindu relics but pay little attention to Muslim culture.

A collection of rare three-dimensional puppets which were owned by Raffles but not mentioned in The History of Java.
Painting of Candi Sukuh in East Java by T. C. Watson, during the time Raffles was Governor of Java. The Europeans at the time did not believe that the native Javanese were capable of building structures like these, and thought they might be related to the Egyptian civilization which is reflected in the painting.

Some of Raffles’ personal flaws also come through, now with 200 years of hindsight and other historical sources to draw upon. This story of the tapir publication is quite telling about Raffles’s conflict with his second, William Farquhar. Farquhar arguably should be credited as the actual founder of the Singapore settlement (having done the actual legwork) but even the named after him was erased in the 1990s, a victim of Singapore’s urban redevelopment. William Farquhar’s legacy was more recently redeemed in Nadia Wright’s book, William Farquhar and Singapore: Stepping out from Raffles’ Shadow

Juvenile Malayan tapir from the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, National University of Singapore
I love this caption basically says Raffles was a dick.

Raffles in Southeast Asia was enjoyable in many layers. For many Singaporeans, it was an eye-opener to the influence of Raffles on the rest of the region and not just the country he ‘founded’. The exhibition can also be seen as a critique to the legacy of colonialism, and how its perspective was selective in many ways.

Raffles in Southeast Asia is on display at the Asian Civilisations Museum until 28 April 2019. Admission fees apply.

An ode to the unsung heroines of Borobudur

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via Jakarta Post, 28 Feb 2018: An exhibition of 37 works by Dyan Anggraini at the National Gallery of Indonesia follows the path of meditative reflection exalting the creative process underlying the building of Borobudur temple.

When artist Dyan Anggraini cries out in frustration, she does so with restraint, and her voice even goes mum, to ultimately explode on canvas and sculptural installations.

Source: An ode to the unsung heroines of Borobudur

UI archaeology professor weighs in on Borobudur’s ‘chattra’ restoration

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via Jakarta Post, 20 January 2018: Some disagreement over a plan to reinstall the chattra or symbolic umbrella on top of Borobudur.

The University of Indonesia’s (UI) archaeology professor, Agus Aris Munandar, said there needed to be a thorough study prior to restoring the chattra (an umbrella-shaped form symbol usually placed atop religious symbols in Buddhism and Hinduism) on the top of the main Yasthi stupa at Borobudur temple.

Source: UI archaeology professor weighs in on Borobudur’s ‘chattra’ restoration

Borobudur archives listed in UNESCO Memory of the World Register

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via Antara News, 11 October 2017:

Four national archives were included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, according to Bambang Subiyanto, chief executive of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

“The four archives on the Borobudur temple restoration, Panji Story, Non-Aligned Movement, and Tsunami had been registered in 2016, and the results will be announced at the end of October 2017,” Subiyanto remarked here on Tuesday.

He said Indonesia had submitted a proposal to list the archives of Borobudurs renovation during the 1973-1983 period in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, as the second restoration had involved several parties, and Indonesia has a complete documentation on the work.

Source: Four archives listed in UNESCO Memory of the World Register – ANTARA News

Borobudur Tourism Authority Board holds second coordinating meeting

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via Jakarta Post, 22 August 2017:

Borobudur Tourism Authority Board holds second coordinating meeting

The second coordinating meeting of Borobudur Tourism Authority Board (BOB) was recently held on August 22.

The meeting was led by Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs of Indonesia Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan and attended by Tourism Minister Arief Yahya, Minister of National Development Planning Bambang Brodjonegoro and Minister of Administrative and Bureaucratic Reform Asman Abnur.

The establishment of BOB is based on the Presidential Regulation No. 46 of 2017 that was signed by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo on April 11. The board was officially launched in July

Source: Borobudur Tourism Authority Board holds second coordinating meeting – News – The Jakarta Post

Central Java ready to host annual Borobudur Festival

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via Jakarta Post, 31 July 2017

Central Java ready to host annual Borobudur Festival

…The event that ran from July 28 to 30 featured plenty of arts and cultural activities, seminar, human resource training, local products and culinary exhibitions.

“We hope that BIF can be held more frequently, make it into an annual or biannual event,” Esthy suggested.

Central Java governor Ganjar Pranowo welcome the suggestion of making BIF as an annual event. Ganjar said that the event positively contributes to the enhancement of Indonesian tourism, especially in Central Java.

Source: Central Java ready to host annual Borobudur Festival – News – The Jakarta Post

See Angkor Wat and Borobudur in Lego

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via Channel NewsAsia, 27 July 2017: A new exhibition in Singapore features Lego versions of World Heritage Sites, including Southeast Asian ones like Angkor Wat, Borobudur and the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

Brick by brick: New Lego exhibition gathers together World Heritage Sites

Source: Brick by brick: New Lego exhibition gathers together World Heritage Sites – Channel NewsAsia

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