Masonic Singapore?

The tiny country of Singapore is a twenty-first century economic powerhouse. In recent surveys it has been shown that Singapore has more millionaires per households than any other country in the world. In a 2012 report, Singapore was ranked number two in economic competitiveness. From its founding, Singapore seems to have been blessed with good economic fortune.

Singapore owes its creation to one Sir Stamford Raffles, a representative of the East India Company and a Freemason, who negotiated a shrewd deal that allowed the island of Singapore to operate as a commerce zone, free of restrictions from local Malay and Indonesian interests.

Raffles, an overlooked and fascinating figure of the early nineteenth century, was a progressive pioneer who carried a revolutionary spirit to the uncharted waters of the exotic East.


An Economic Talisman

One of the richest countries in the world, Singapore is an international trading hub that bridges East and West, both economically and politically. Founded in 1819 by Raffles, it was brought to life by fellow Freemasons in the mid-1800s as a true financial talisman.

By the time he incorporated Singapore as a trading port in the name of the East India Company in February 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles was recognized as a key figure in the halls of British high society and royalty. An acclaimed author and former Lt. Governor of Java from 1811 to 1814, Raffles had returned to Southeast Asia in 1818, ostensibly as the Governor of Bencoolen in Sumatra (present-day Indonesia), a territory that was still under Dutch control, save for the small British outpost that Raffles oversaw.

A liberal free thinker Raffles had immersed himself in the cultures and languages of Southeast Asia. Being fluent in many of the Malay dialects he was able to tread where few Westerners had, negotiating with local tribal leaders and establishing lasting trading operations.

Raffles had been an employee of the East India Company since the age of 14 and in 1812, he had became a member of the Freemasons. At times the lines between these two organizations was blurred in the early days of Singapore. Who Raffles and his fellow Asian émigrés were really serving seems unclear at times, but it is beyond doubt that Freemasonry was a connecting force for the Southeast Asian pioneers of the early nineteenth century.

By any measure, Raffles was a true renaissance man and perhaps the perfect candidate to help the UK make inroads into the complex kingdoms of Southeast Asia. His chief benefactor and the man who had installed him in Java was another prominent Freemason, Lord Minto, the Crown’s main representative in India. With Minto’s support, Raffles had managed to create a functioning free trading center in Java for the East India Company, despite Java’s technically still being a Dutch possession. Also during this period, Raffles began writing a book, The History of Java, which would be published to great acclaim in 1818.

Raffles himself was first initiated as a Freemason in the Lodge Virtutis et Artis Amici in Java. He later established the Lodge, de Vriendschap Soerabaya, in Batavia. Information about these lodges is scarce, in part because of Java’s political turmoil. By the time of the founding of Singapore in 1819; however, Raffles was, without a doubt, a high-ranking Freemason with bold and forward thinking ideas.

Intriguingly, Raffles even had a meeting with Napoleon during this period while the dictator was in exile on St. Helena Island in 1817. Little is known of the circumstances of this meeting. Although it is known that Raffles and Napoleon discussed the politics of Southeast Asia, Napoleon himself was also a prolific Freemasonic scholar; so it is perhaps possible that their mutual membership in the Masonic fraternity had led to the meeting in the first place.

Despite his tranquil exile and their cordial meeting, Raffles still deemed Napoleon a “monster” and had no contact with him after this curious rendezvous.


The Forbidden Hill—The Architect

Perhaps even more enigmatic than Raffles was his handpicked protégé, one George Drumgold Coleman, an Irish architect destined to design and build the early town of Singapore. Very little is known about Coleman, but he followed a very similar path to Raffles’, traveling from India to Java and then to Singapore in the early 1820s. Like Raffles, Coleman had immersed himself in Asian cultures and spoke several of the languages and dialects of the Southeast Asian region. He appears to have been initiated into Freemasonry in Lodge de Vriendschap Soerabaya, although the existing record is obscure.

Once in Singapore, Coleman was commissioned by Raffles to build a governor’s residence and a Christian church. While the governor’s residence was built by 1823, the church would not be constructed for another 10 years.

The site chosen for the governor’s house was as symbolic as it was strategic, the hilly area known to the local Malay tribes as ‘Bukit Lurangan’ or ‘Forbidden Hill,’ thought to be the final resting place of a medieval Malay king. During the 1830s and 1840s the land in front of Raffles’ residence became the first Christian cemetery in Singapore. In later years this location became a British army outpost named Fort Canning. During the 1800s it gave Singapore’s rulers a commanding and dramatic view of Singapore town and the bay.

One of Coleman’s most significant buildings was called the Maxwell House, and it was constructed in 1826. From its inception, it was used as an official government house, first as a courthouse and later as Parliament House. Its location on the early map of Singapore makes up the Coleman Grid, an alignment of important structures that gave character to the old town of Singapore. The appearance of this 191-year-old building is similar to many US federal buildings and invokes the spirit of America’s capitol city of Washington DC. The building, built in the Palladium style that Coleman seemed to love, had a dome shape on its top level and was capped with a flagpole. When they desired to replace this building with a new structure, the Singapore government chose a rather Masonic-looking, truncated pyramid design in 1995.

In 1828 Coleman, now a semi-official agent of the East India Company, would construct three new houses in the area known as the Esplanade. One of these, the one-time home of Thomas Church, then Resident Councilor of the colony, would eventually be used as a Freemasonic lodge, prior to the construction of the current Masonic Hall at 23A Coleman Street. These Esplanade buildings lay 90 degrees away from the Maxwell House and would be complemented in the decade ahead by Singapore’s first cathedral, St. Andrews, which would sit 180 degrees opposite the Maxwell House.

The second structure of the Coleman Alignment was the most prominent church of old Singapore, St. Andrew’s Cathedral and it housed for many years a gift from the very cradle of America’s revolution: the Balesteir Bell. Located diagonally opposite Maxwell House, St. Andrew’s Cathedral received the bell as a gift to Singapore from the daughter of Paul Revere, Maria Revere Balesteir, who arrived in Singapore in the 1840’s with her husband Joseph Balesteir. The bell, which was cast at the Revere Foundry in Boston, was initially installed in St. Andrew’s in 1843, and is now housed at the National Museum of Singapore. Revere, of course, was a prominent Freemason, his lodge being, in fact, named St. Andrews.


The Masons and the White Rajah

When the Freemasons formally convened to form their first lodge in Singapore in 1845, their first member initiated was William Napier, Coleman’s newspaper partner and a prosperous lawyer. Napier was himself also a confidante of James Brooke, the so-called White Rajah of Borneo.

Brooke, a much overlooked historical figure, made inroads into Southeast Asia with even grander plans than Raffles could imagine. He eventually carved out his own kingdom in Borneo and reigned officially as a Rajah for the rest of his life, passing on his title to his children. Under Napier’s watchful eye, Brooke was initiated into the Freemasons in Singapore in 1847.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Singapore had developed into a thriving, small colony, home to many ethnic groups and cultures. At its center, it was a well-conceived economic talisman initiated by Singapore’s Freemasonic-influenced founders, Raffles, Coleman and Napier. Today it remains an economic powerhouse bridging the worlds of East and West.

By Stephen V. O'Rourke