Singapore’s early beginnings intertwine fact and folklore – the city-state has been engaged in the pomp of ancient Malay empires, the intrigues of medieval trade, the bartering of European colonial powers, and the challenge of nation-building.
Stamford Raffles is often called the founder of modern Singapore. He gave shape to many sections of Singapore’s city centre, which flourished as an important port and business centre in the region.
After the British secession of Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia, Raffles gained permission to establish a station in the region, to secure British trade interests there. When Raffles first landed in Singapore in 1819, there was a division within the Johor Sultanate. The old Sultan had died in 1812, and his younger son had ascended to the throne when the eldest son and legitimate heir, Hussein, was away.
Two years later, the island, along with Malacca and Penang, became part of the British Straits Settlements. The Straits Settlements were controlled by the East India Company in Calcutta but administered from Singapore.
Raffles initiated a town plan for central Singapore. The plan included levelling one hill to set up a commercial centre (today’s Shenton Way) and constructing government buildings around Fort Canning.
Raffles, and the first Resident of Singapore, William Farquhar, gradually moulded Singapore from a jungle-ridden backwater with poor sanitation and little modern infrastructure to a successful entrepôt and colonial outpost. Hospitals, schools and a water supply system were built. Soon, boatloads of immigrants from India and China were coming to Singapore, in search of prosperity and a better life.
The beginnings of Singapore are steeped in local Malay legend. The island is said to have received its name from a visiting Sumatran prince in the 14th century, who saw a fearsome creature – later identified to him as a lion – on his arrival. Taking this as a good omen, the prince founded a new city on the spot, changing the name of the island from Temasek to Singapura. In Sanskrit, “singa” means lion and “pura” means city.
Thus the Lion City was born, and today the symbol of the merlion – a mythical creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish – is a reminder of Singapore’s early connections to this legend and the seas.
Economically, Singapore went from strength to strength throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. But in the 1940s and 1950s, political storm clouds were gathering over Asia. Japan’s quest for more power, land and natural resources saw it invading China in 1931 and 1937, a move which was opposed by the Chinese immigrants in Singapore.
The next few years were a dark period in Singapore’s history. The Japanese treated the Chinese with particular suspicion, and many of them were tortured, incarcerated and killed, often on the flimsiest of pretexts. As the war progressed, food and other essential supplies ran low, and malnutrition and disease were widespread.
By 1945 however, it was clear that Japan, and its allies, were losing the war. The Japanese surrendered Singapore on August 14, 1945. The British returned, but their right to rule was now in question.
After the war, the British grouped the peninsula Malay states and the British-controlled states of Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo under the Malayan Union. Singapore, which unlike the other states had a predominantly Chinese population, was left out of this union. Rebuilding itself after the war was a slow and difficult task. In the post-war climate of poverty, unemployment and lack of ideological direction, communist groups such as the Malayan Communist Party and the Communist General Labour Union, and the socialist Malayan Democratic Union, gained popular support.
In 1963, the British declared Singapore, the Malay states and Sabah and Sarawak as one independent nation – Malaysia. But Singapore’s membership in this union lasted only 2 years. In 1965, it was booted out of the federation, owing to disagreements on several fronts including racial issues.
Left on its own, Singapore embarked on an ambitious industrialisation plan – building public housing, roads and modernising its port and telecommunications infrastructure. English was chosen as the official language, to facilitate communication between the different races, and to put the nation at the forefront of commerce.
In about 25 years, by the late 1980s, Singapore had moved from a fragile and small country with no natural resources to a newly industrialised economy.
Singapore today is a thriving centre of commerce and industry, with intense economic growth. Singapore is not merely a single island but is actually the main island surrounded by at least 60 islets. Measuring a compact 720 sq km, its size really belies its capacity for growth.
Singapore is now a rapidly developing manufacturing base. The Republic, however, still remains the busiest port the world over with more than 600 shipping lines herding supertankers, container ships, passenger liners, fishing vessels and even wooden lighters in its waters.
It is also a major oil refining and distribution centre, and an important supplier of electronic components. Its rich history as a popular harbour has turned it into a leader in shipbuilding, maintenance and repair. Singapore has also become one of Asia’s most important financial centres, housing at least 130 banks.
Both business and pleasure are made more accessible and smooth flowing by the Republic’s excellent and up-to-date communications network, linking it to the rest of the world through satellite and round the clock telegraph and telephone systems. Now fully grown into an Asian Dragon, Singapore is, somehow unsurprisingly, a leading destination for both business and pleasure.