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A brief history of Singapore

Updated on August 12, 2017
Merlion - the symbol of Singapore
Merlion - the symbol of Singapore | Source

Singapore is a small island-nation situated in the centre of Southeast Asia. Covering a total land area of about 710km2 with an estimated population of 6 million, the island-city is surrounded by the much larger countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. Despite its small land mass and lack of natural resources, Singapore is a highly urbanized nation, being today one of the leading financial capitals and commercial centres in Southeast Asia and the world.

Five quick facts about Singapore that you may not know:

  • The name “Singapore” is derived from its Malay name, “Singapura.” In Malay/Sanskrit, “singa” means “lion,” while “pura” means “town/city.” Hence, the name “Singapura” or “Singapore” literally means “Lion City”
  • Singapore is today one of the world’s five busiest ports, and it is also one of the world’s top five financial centres
  • Singapore is the world’s only country in history to have attained independence against its own will, having been part of neighbouring Malaysia until 1965
  • After its independence in 1965, Singapore started off as an underdeveloped former British colonial outpost, having no natural resources or developed infrastructure whatsoever, unlike its neighbour Malaysia at that time
  • Singapore is the only country in the world to declare up to four languages originating from different “ends of the world” as its official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Tamil

Parameswara (1344 - 1414), the last king of Singapura and founder of the Malacca Sultanate
Parameswara (1344 - 1414), the last king of Singapura and founder of the Malacca Sultanate | Source
Location of Palembang in relation to Singapore
Location of Palembang in relation to Singapore | Source

Early history of Singapore

Singapore’s early history is obscured by numerous legends and myths, and reliable historical records describing the island’s pre-colonial past are few. Prior to the arrival of the British in Singapore in the early 1800s, the island was scarcely populated by fishermen and merchants, most of whom migrated from the neighbouring regions and islands of what is today Malaysia and Indonesia.

Perhaps one of the most popular stories regarding the early origins of Singapore is that of Sang Nila Utama, as written in the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals). Sang Nila Utama was a prince from the mighty Srivijaya Empire centred in Palembang, Sumatra. In search of a place to establish a new city, he set sail eastwards from Palembang with a fleet of ships carrying many of his mighty men. During his journey, he stumbled upon an island with a beautiful, white sandy shoreline, and was taken aback by this amazing sight. He asked his Chief Minister what the name of the island was, to which the latter replied that it was called Temasek (“Sea Town” in Old Javanese). Sang Nila Utama then decided to land on that island to explore it further. While hunting in the jungles of the island, he came across an odd creature with an orange body and a black head, a creature he had never seen before. As the creature sped off in an instant into the depths of the jungles, Sang Nila Utama, caught by surprise, asked his Chief Minister as to what that creature was. The Chief Minister answered that it resembled a lion (“singa” in Malay). The prince, seeing this as a sign of good fortune, subsequently decided to establish his new city and kingdom on Temasek in 1299, renaming it Singapura (“Lion City” in Malay). Thus was born the Malay Kingdom of Singapura, a trading outpost that flourished under the constant patronage of the Yuan Dynasty of China.

As the Yuan Dynasty faced decline in the late 1300s, so too did the Kingdom of Singapura. Coupled with invasions from the Majapahit Empire centred in Java and threats from Siam, the once flourishing trading outpost consequently disappeared into obscurity. The last king of Singapura, Parameswara, fled from the island after a final invasion from Majapahit in 1398, marking the complete collapse of the kingdom. Parameswara, in search of a new location to revive his kingdom, made his way northwards in the Malay Peninsula with his men, finally settling down in what is today Malacca in Malaysia to establish the Malacca Sultanate in 1400. As the Malacca Sultanate grew in power and extent, it annexed Singapore as part of its territory, reviving the island’s former glory days as a major trading outpost for roughly another century. With the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511, Singapore once again sank into obscurity for several decades before being annexed as a territory of the Johor Sultanate, the successor to the Malacca Sultanate. Nonetheless, due to political instability and competition from the Portuguese and subsequently Dutch powers that occupied Malacca, the Johor Sultanate was not able to develop Singapore to become what it used to be in the past.

Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore
Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore | Source
Ships docking at the busy Victoria Dock, Tanjong Pagar in the 1890s
Ships docking at the busy Victoria Dock, Tanjong Pagar in the 1890s | Source
Flag of the British Straits Settlements
Flag of the British Straits Settlements | Source
$1 banknote used in the Straits Settlement of Singapore in 1935
$1 banknote used in the Straits Settlement of Singapore in 1935 | Source

Singapore as a British colony

Because of Southeast Asia’s strategic location, being in the middle of maritime trade routes between China, India, Europe and the Middle East, the region drew the attention and interest of several European colonial powers. Among these, the Portuguese was the first to arrive, defeating the Malacca Sultanate and making the port-city of Malacca its first colony in the region. This was followed by the Dutch, who subsequently took over Malacca and monopolized trade within the region.

With the arrival of the British in the late 1700s, Dutch monopoly over trade started to wane. The British saw a need to establish strong trading outposts in the region. Although the British succeeded in establishing colonies in Bencoolen (Bengkulu), Sumatra and Penang, present-day Malaysia, they soon realized that both Bencoolen and Penang’s locations were not very strategic to exert any meaningful influence on Southeast Asia’s trading routes. Stamford Raffles, the Lieutenant Governor of the British colony in Bencoolen, was thus tasked to search for a better location. Setting his sights on Singapore, Raffles signed a treaty with Sultan Hussein of the Johor Sultanate in 1819, which formally granted permission for the British East India Company to set up a trading post on the island. This thus marked the founding of modern Singapore in 1819.

In order to solidify British control over the whole island, John Crawford, the second British Resident of Singapore, signed a second treaty in 1823 with Sultan Hussein and Temenggung Abdul Rahman, the Johor Sultanate’s representative in Singapore. This second treaty effectively ended the Johor Sultanate’s rule over Singapore, allowing the island to be ceded in perpetuity to the British East India Company.

Dutch presence in Malacca proved to be a threat to the British in Singapore. After a series of disagreements and mutual retaliations, the British and Dutch signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaties of 1814 and 1824, which resulted in the Dutch ceding Malacca to the British in exchange for Bencoolen, and an end to Dutch opposition towards British rule over Singapore. In 1826, the British colonies of Penang, Malacca and Singapore were grouped together under a single political entity known as the Straits Settlements.

From its establishment in 1826 until 1867, the Straits Settlements was under the governance of the British East India Company; thereafter it was made a Crown Colony and came under direct British rule from London. Under British rule, Singapore flourished tremendously as an international trading hub in Southeast Asia, developing from a hollow Malay settlement into one of the busiest ports in the British Empire. Merchants from all over Asia, Europe and the Middle East started settling and establishing businesses on the island.

During this era, Singapore did not only grow commercially; many new rubber plantations and tin mines were opened throughout the island as well. Due to the need for cheap labour in order to develop these plantations and mines, the British decided to bring in large waves of labourers from China and India, many of whom subsequently settled on the island and thus formed significant local Chinese and Indian communities.

Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival (centre, holding the Union Jack) and British troops making their way to surrender to the Japanese forces in Singapore
Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival (centre, holding the Union Jack) and British troops making their way to surrender to the Japanese forces in Singapore | Source
Negotiations for the British surrender, with Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita (centre, seated) thumping the table demanding for unconditional surrender
Negotiations for the British surrender, with Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita (centre, seated) thumping the table demanding for unconditional surrender | Source
Japanese troops marching through Fullerton Square in downtown Singapore to celebrate their victory
Japanese troops marching through Fullerton Square in downtown Singapore to celebrate their victory | Source
A segment of the "Death Railway" that was constructed during the Japanese occupation at the cost of thousands of lives
A segment of the "Death Railway" that was constructed during the Japanese occupation at the cost of thousands of lives | Source

Singapore under Japanese occupation

As World War II erupted, the Japanese expressed an interest in conquering Southeast Asia in order to advance their political, economic and military ambitions. On 8 December 1941, Japanese troops landed at Kota Bharu in northern Malaya, pushing all the way southwards towards the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. By 31 January 1942, merely 55 days after the start of Japanese invasion, the Japanese army succeeded in capturing the whole of Malaya and were ready to attack Singapore.

In an attempt to stop the Japanese army from marching towards Singapore, the remaining Allied forces blew up the Causeway bridge connecting Johor to Singapore. Nevertheless, this did not stop the Japanese army from making their way across the Straits of Johor and invading the island. About a fortnight later, on 15 February 1942 during Chinese New Year, the Allied forces in Singapore were so subdued that Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival announced their unconditional surrender to Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita. Singapore thus came under Japanese rule and was renamed Shonan-to (“Light of the South Island” in Japanese).

Japanese military rule in Singapore proved to be a time of great poverty, hardship and suffering. As retaliation against Chinese support for anti-Japanese troops in mainland China, the Japanese military government set up a local army police called Kempeitai, which functioned mainly to search, torture and kill ethnic Chinese who provided support in any form to these anti-Japanese troops. Mass executions of ethnic Chinese were carried out frequently, and even those on whom the slightest of suspicions rested were not spared. These mass executions claimed the lives of an estimated 50,000 Chinese in both Singapore and Malaya. Numerous Malays and Indians were taken into forced labour to construct the “Death Railway,” a railway between Burma and Thailand, while Europeans who remained in Singapore and Malaya were caught as POWs (Prisoners of War).

A crowd celebrating the return of the British to Singapore after World War II
A crowd celebrating the return of the British to Singapore after World War II | Source
Released Prisoners of War (POWs) in Singapore returning home after World War II
Released Prisoners of War (POWs) in Singapore returning home after World War II | Source
Flag of the Crown Colony of Singapore from 1946 to 1959
Flag of the Crown Colony of Singapore from 1946 to 1959 | Source

Post-War Singapore

With the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allied Forces at the end of World War II, the Japanese military government collapsed, leaving both Singapore and Malaya in a state of utter lawlessness for several weeks. The Supreme Allied Commander for the Southeast Asia Command, Admiral Louis Mountbatten, returned to Singapore shortly after to receive the formal surrender of General Itagaki Seishiro, and the British Military Administration (BMA) was set in place immediately to govern Singapore and Malaya until March 1946. Japanese rule ravaged much of Singapore and Malaya’s infrastructure, and dire poverty made rebuilding efforts difficult.

Shortly after the end of the BMA, the Straits Settlements was dissolved, and Singapore became a Crown Colony in its own right. By this time, the people’s sentiments for independence had grown stronger, and as a result the British colonial government implemented steps towards preparing Singapore for self-governance. Legislative and Executive Councils were created, and Singapore’s first general election was held in March 1948 to elect 6 out of 25 members of the Legislative Council. Subsequent general elections were held in 1951 and 1955, whereby the number of seats to be contested in the elections were increased, while the remaining members were chosen by the British Governor.

The 1955 general election paved the way for further self-governance, with David Marshall, the leader of the Labour Front that won the most seats, becoming the first Chief Minister of Singapore. Marshall’s government faced multiple challenges – rampant racial riots, communist insurgencies, and even lack of cooperation from the colonial government and other local parties. In April 1956, he led a delegation to London to negotiate total independence for Singapore, but the negotiations failed due to the outstanding issues of communism and racial riots, which were adversely affecting Singapore’s economic stability. Following the failure of the negotiations, Marshall resigned and was replaced by Lim Yew Hock, who launched a major crackdown on communism by imprisoning many pro-communist trade union leaders and opposition members. This won the approval of the colonial government, who then allowed more self-governance for the island-nation.

The 1959 general elections became the first general election to be held after the first Constitution of Singapore took effect. In this general election, all 51 members of the Legislative Assembly were to be elected by the people. The People’s Action Party (PAP) emerged victorious, and its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, became the first Prime Minister of Singapore, with Yusof Ishak as the Yang Di-Pertuan Negara (Head of State) of Singapore. The Prime Minister, according to the new constitution, wielded powers in all matters of state governance except defence and foreign affairs, which were still under the colonial government’s purview.

Formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963

1964 Racial Riots in Singapore

Singapore in Malaysia

Lee and many other PAP leaders believed that Singapore’s future lay with Malaya due to their strong political, economic, historical and cultural ties. Ideas for a merger were mooted and campaigned upon vigorously, to which the dominant party in the newly independent Malaya, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), initially gave a cold response stemming from worries that Singapore’s large Chinese population may offset Malaya’s Malay majority. Nonetheless, the Malayan government changed its mind shortly after, in view of growing communist influence in Singapore that became a greater worry for both governments.

Malaya’s Prime Minister and UMNO president, Tunku Abdul Rahman, suggested that the merger involve not only Malaya and Singapore, but also the Borneo states of Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei, since the latter three states had substantial Malay populations that could potentially maintain the new merger’s Malay majority. 16 September 1963 saw the birth of the Federation of Malaysia, with all the aforementioned territories except Brunei as components of the new nation. The name “Malaysia” was, in fact, a product of adding Singapore’s initials (SI) into the name of Malaya.

Singapore’s brief two years as a component state of Malaysia were very rocky from the start. Lee and the PAP vehemently disagreed to the Malaysian federal government’s policies of special privileges for ethnic Malays, while Tunku’s government feared Singapore’s growing economic dominance that may shift political power away from Kuala Lumpur. The aftermath of the 1964 Malaysian general election was the last straw for Tunku’s federal government. The PAP challenged UMNO candidates in Peninsular Malaysia in the general election in retaliation for UMNO candidates taking part in Singapore’s state election a year earlier, despite prior informal agreements not to do so. During the general election, Lee and his PAP held rallies throughout Malaysia, crying out the slogan “Malaysian Malaysia!” and campaigning for fair and equal treatment of all races. This drew the ire of many UMNO leaders and ethnic Malays towards the Chinese particularly.

A series of racial riots ensued, with the worst being the 21 July 1964 riots that occurred on Prophet Muhammad’s Birthday (Maulidur Rasul). The series of racial riots left many ethnic Malays and Chinese injured and a handful dead. Curfews were declared and emergency meetings were convened by the federal government. Seeing no other alternative to prevent further bloodshed, Tunku decided to expel Singapore from the federation, thus making the island-state an independent and sovereign nation against its own will, with Yusof Ishak as the first President and Lee Kuan Yew as the first Prime Minister of independent Singapore.

Separation of Singapore from Malaysia

Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister and founder of the Republic of Singapore
Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister and founder of the Republic of Singapore | Source

Republic of Singapore

A teary Lee appeared on television and announced the separation of Singapore in August 1965, saying, “For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories.” Singapore’s independence was reluctantly obtained on 9 August 1965. Lee felt that the merger was necessary, as he believed that Singapore could not survive on its own, having no natural resources or military force. Coupled with the ongoing Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation at that time, Lee was overwhelmed by the possibility that Singapore might be attacked by Indonesia and be annexed, or be reabsorbed forcefully into Malaysia on unfavourable terms. An array of problems rested on Lee’s platter – lack of natural resources, land and defence; high unemployment rates; issues regarding housing, education and crime; racial integration and national identity.

Among the earliest steps Lee took to consolidate the new Singapore was to set up the Singapore Armed Forces with secret assistance from Israelite military advisors, via a national service program that remains till today. Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam headed delegations that worked hard to establish diplomatic ties with other countries and seek recognition for its sovereignty. The Housing Development Board was mobilized to design and implement major housing projects to provide affordable homes, while the Economic Development Board played a tremendous role in promoting Singapore’s industrial and service sectors, as well as attracting foreign investments via tax incentives.

Over the years of rapid industrialization and modernization, Singapore has become one of the world’s largest success stories. In just less than half a century, the island-nation has now developed from being a backward colonial outpost to become one of Asia and the world’s largest financial capitals and commercial ports. Ask anyone to name you some of the world’s most successful developed nations, and chances are you’ll hear Singapore as one of the answers.

Skyline of modern Singapore
Skyline of modern Singapore | Source

© 2013 James


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    • Jatinder Joshi profile image

      Jatinder Joshi 

      5 years ago from Whitby, Ontario, Canada

      Thank you for sharing the history of the birth of Singapore as a free and independent nation. The credit for the emergence of Singapore as a nation to be reckoned with must surely go to the first PM of Singapore.


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