Two-hundred years after Raffles’ arrival in Singapore, Munsyi Abdullah remains a much-discussed and deployed figure in the historiography of early colonial Singapore. Interpretive efforts have almost exclusively been based on his autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah, and a travelogue Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah.
Scholars have viewed Abdullah as an early social critic of Malay power writing in the Malay language in the first half of the 19th century. However, Amin Sweeney substantively challenged established understandings of Abdullah. Sweeney convincingly showed that Abdullah is better understood as a subtle critic and even a manipulator of his European interlocutors, one who craftily used his Western contacts and connections to preserve his role as a cultural intermediary in a burgeoning trading space.
Recently, a scholarly consensus is emerging that views early colonial Singapore as far from adequately studied. Given the current exhibition at ACM, the visiting Raffles Collection should be leveraged as a timely opportunity to inspire fresh historical considerations of aspects of early colonial Singapore. Some of Abdullah’s neglected observations on colonial contact, arrival, lives, and life can be critically and imaginatively used in tandem with traces of this past to better discuss early colonial Singapore, and thereby provide a better platform to engage the Raffles Collection. Such efforts can also inform much needed wider conversations on other ramifications of the travelling collection – its provenance, ownership, and the legacy of imperialism itself.
About the Speaker
Kelvin Lawrence is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. He is currently working on a book on the intersections of Abdullah and Empire.
Image: A view of Singapore harbour. Oil on canvas. Collection of the Asian Civilisations Museum