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Roland John Farrer (1873-1956)

Reminiscences of the Good Old Days in Malaya



Mr. Farrer's Reminiscences - Grave and Gay.

Singapore Rotarians who met for their usual weekly luncheon at Raffles Hotel yesterday were thoroughly entertained by Mr. R. J. Farrer, President of the Municipal Commissioners, who spoke on his reminiscences of "the good old days." Mr. Farrer not only gave some interesting facts and figures illustrating the growth of Singapore during the past three and a half decades but recounted incidents both dramatic and humorous with which he had been associated during his service in various parts of Malaya. [...]


Speaking of his impressions of the early days in Singapore, Mr. Farrer said that two of the 17 cadets for Malaya who arrived in November, 1896, were the late Sir Hayes Marriott and himself. They were met on arrival by no less a persons than Sir James Alexander Swettenham who was then Colonial Secretary. That practice had of recent years fallen into disuse (laughter).

"My first impression on landing," said Mr. Farrer, "was that I had walked into a hothouse flavoured with garlic. That impression with the course of years has become fainter. I suppose one's olfactory sense becomes less perceptive as years go on."

"Singapore in those days was not, of course, the Singapore of to-day. One remembers well the roads in the first place. They were almost all beautifully red, being made of laterite. I remember being enormously impressed looking down Orchard Road from about the junction of Cairn Hill Road to see the long narrow ribbon of red road almost arched over by bamboo trees. All that beauty has gone now. There was no Anderson Bridge in those day and no Fullerton Road. Sitting in the Singapore Club you could drop your cigarette ash into the sea. Collyer Quav was one third of its present size and was edged by a sea wall, and when the monsoon was on the waves would beat against the sea wall and splash all across the road. I can remember seeing bags of rice landed over Collyer Quay from tongkangs near Boustead's godown, which now forms the site of the Union Building. In Robinson Road then were only 18 houses, of which nine were put up in 1896, and only four on Raffles Quay. Along South Bridge Road you would reach Kreta Ayer from the side of Ann Siang Hill where Mr. Cook's church stands. Further along, running right away down Maxwell Road, as it is now, was all a hill covered with Chinese graves."


Out of curiosity he had looked up, and he proposed to give them, some of the "horrible facts". The revenue of the Municipality in 1895 was $891,000. Last year they spent on removing rubbish very nearly that figure. The revenue last year was fifteen and a half millions. It was rather curious, he said, to compare the figures of water revenue. In 1895 the figure was $127,291 and in 1929 it was $2,746,000. Capital expenditure in 1895 was $1,112,000 and in 1929 it was $34,000,000.

The population was supposed to have risen from 185,009 in 1895 to 500,000. The health figures were very significant. Expenditure in that direction in 1895 was $7,758 and the death rate was 45.7 per thousand. Last year expenditure on health was $591,284 and the death rate had been brought down to 26.41.

"I think," said Mr. Farrer, "one or two items about assessment would be interesting. You know Paterson Simons' godown in Prince Street: that was valued at $6,780. It is now valued at $20,380." He gave many other figures which showed the enormous increase in value of various buildings. He referred to a building in Kling Street which had risen from $6,720 to $33,600. He had noticed that the area where the greatest changes had taken place was Rochore Road. House No. 3 in Rochore Road, two doors off Beach Road and in front of the Clyde Terrace Market, was let in those days at a rental of $15 per month. The present rent was $200. The same was the case all the way along Rochore Road, and nowhere was-the value less than ten times what it was in 1896.


In speaking of what he termed "something more human", Mr. Farrer spoke of personalities he had known and told some very amusing stories. One of them was concerned with Mr. H. L. O'Brien, a Magistrate who, said Mr. Farrer, was six feet nine in height and weighed 23 stone. He remembered once seeing Mr. O'Brien arrive outside his court in a two-wheel carriage. Being reluctant to leave the carriage an action which, by reason of his bulk, he found somewhat arduous he called for his interpreter who arrived with the charge street. Glancing at the charge sheet and finding 17 cases on it, he said, "That's all right, odd numbers fined $5, even numbers cautioned and discharged."

After subsequent anecdotes of an amusing character Mr. Farrer recounted the following: In 1902 he was able to save an old Malay couple from being ruined by a chetty. The chetty was only agent for his master and was given six months. He appealed and was acquitted. In the meantime he ran away. The principal was an honest fellow and after talking about the matter he agreed to restore the Malay couple to their former position. When he was about to go on leave in 1907 the same old woman brought him a silver betel nut box which she wanted him to give his mother - he was going away to attend silver wedding of his father and mother. He was very touched and found it difficult to express his thanks The old woman, thinking that his hesitancy indicated that the gift was not acceptable, told him the history of the box and how it was the only thing her mother had snatched up, besides her, when she had to flee from her home owing to an invasion of Perlis by the Siamese. That little box was now one of his most treasured possessions.


In Kelantan in 1915 he was sent for by the Sultan who was very concerned because one of his sons had been killed by a commoner. The Sultan expressed a wish to have the trial, sentence, and execution carried out without delay. The speaker pointed out some platitudes concerning justice in cold blood etc. and then recounted the incidents in Queen Victoria's life when attempts at assassination were made on her but she took no reprisals. The Sultan, after considering this, spoke again in a calmer voice and said he would like to tell Mr Farrer a story. His story was that his grandfather received a small wound from an Arab who had run amok at a theatrical performance. Not only was that man executed but the whole of his family and everybody in whom ran the same strain of blood. That story, said Mr. Farrer, could be borne in mind when they heard people running down the imperialistic authority of British rule.

[Singapore Free Press, 24 Sep 1930]

Owner of originalSingapore Free Press
Date24 Sep 1930
Linked toRoland John Farrer

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