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History of Singapore

What is perhaps unusual is the ease with which Singaporeans have come to terms with their history. The psychology of decolonization, so evident elsewhere, seems not to have afflicted the average Singaporean. Perhaps this is because all the population are the sons and daughters of relatively recent immigrants; perhaps because of the self-evident social and economic achievements of the country; or perhaps it is because there is general acceptance that the colonial experience was beneficial. It is reflected in such things as place names. After independence, there was no rush to rename streets after resistance fighters and nationalist figures from history. Empress Place, Connaught Drive, Alexander Road, Clive Street and Dalhousie Pier remain with the names that the British gave them.

Early records

Although Singapore has probably been inhabited for the past two millennia, there are few early records. In the third century, Chinese sailors mention Pu-luo-chung, 'the island at the end of the Peninsula', and historians speculate that this may have been Singapore. Even its name, Singapura, from the Sanskrit for 'Lion City', is unexplained - other than by the legendary account in the Sejara Melayu. It was originally called Temasek - or 'Sea Town' - and may have been a small seaport in the days of the Sumatran Srivijayan Empire. Following Srivijaya's decline in the late 13th century, however, Singapore emerged from the shadows to become, for a short while, a locally important trading centre in its own right.

Marco Polo, the Venetian adventurer, visited Sumatra in the late 1200s and referred to Chiamassie, which he says was a 'very large and noble city'. Historians believe this was probably Temasek. According to the 16th-century Sejara Melayu, Temasek was a thriving entrepôt by the 14th century, when it changed its name to Singapura. Whatever prosperity it may have had did not last. In the late 1300s it was destroyed by invading Siamese and Javanese, for Singapura fell in the middle ground between the expanding Ayutthaya (Siamese) and Majapahit (Javanese) empires. The ruler - called Parameswara, who was said to be a fugitive prince from Palembang in Sumatra - fled to Melaka, where he founded the powerful Malay sultanate in the 1390s. Following Parameswara's hasty departure, Singapura was abandoned except for a few Orang Laut ('Sea People'), who made a living from fishing and piracy. While trade flourished elsewhere in the region, the port, which today is the busiest in the world, was a jungled backwater, and it remained that way for four centuries.

Raffles steps ashore

In the early 1800s, the British East India Company occupied Dutch colonies in the east, to prevent them falling into French hands: Napoleon had occupied Holland and the Dutch East India Company had gone bankrupt. In January 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore with the hope that he could set up a trading post at the mouth of the Singapore River. He was relieved to hear that the Dutch had never been there and promptly struck a deal with the resident temenggong (Malay chief) of the Riau-Johor Empire. To seal this agreement, he had to obtain official approval from the Sultan of Riau-Johor.

Due to a succession squabble following the previous sultan's death in 1812, there were two claimants, one on Pulau Lingga (far to the south), who was recognized by the Dutch, and one on Pulau Bintan. Realizing that the Dutch would bar the Lingga sultan from sanctioning his settlement on Singapore, Raffles approached the other one, flattering him, offering him money and pronouncing him Sultan of Johor. He agreed to pay Sultan Hussein Mohammad Shah 5000 Spanish dollars a year in rent and a further 3000 Spanish dollars to the temenggong. The Union Jack was officially raised over Singapore on 6 February 1819, and Raffles set sail again the next day - having been there less than a week - leaving in charge the former Resident of Melaka, Colonel William Farquhar. It was this act of Raffles' that led to him being accorded the title 'Founder of Singapore'. Yet some historians would give the title to another great, although lesser known, British colonialist, Sir John Crawfurd. Ernest Chew, Professor of History at the National University of Singapore, argues that all Raffles secured in his negotiations was permission to establish a trading post. It was not until Crawfurd became the second Resident of Singapore in 1824 that Britain acquired the island by treaty.

The Treaty of London

The Dutch were enraged by Raffles' bold initiative and the British government was embarrassed. But after a protracted diplomatic frisson, the Treaty of London was finally signed in 1824 and the Dutch withdrew their objection to the British presence on Singapore in exchange for the British withdrawal from Bencoolen (Benkulu) in Sumatra, where Raffles had served as governor. Seven years later, the trading post was tied with Penang (which had been in British hands since 1786) and Melaka (which the Dutch had swapped with Bencoolen). They became known as the Straits Settlements and attracted traders and settlers from all over Southeast Asia, and the world.

Raffles' vision

Although Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles spent little time in Singapore, his vision for the city can still be seen today: “Our object is not territory but trade; a great commercial emporium and a fulcrum whence we may extend our influence politically as circumstances may hereafter require.” Each time Raffles departed, he left strict instructions on the layout of the growing city; stipulating, for example, that the streets should be arranged on a grid structure wherever possible. Houses were to have a uniform front and “a veranda open at all times as a continued and covered passage on each side of the street” (the so-called 'five-foot ways') - stipulations which resulted in the unique character of Singapore. During his second visit in 1819, he divided the town into distinct districts, or kampongs. Raffles firmly believed that the different ethnic groups should be segregated. The Europeans were to live in the Beach Road area between Stamford canal and Arab Street, the Chinese were to live south of the river (in fact, Chinatown was divided into three separate areas for the different dialect groups), and the temenggong and the 600-odd Malays were to live along the upper reaches of the river. To the northeast of the European enclave, Kampong Glam housed Sultan Hussein and his Arab followers. The land on the north side of the river was set aside for government buildings. A mere six months after Raffles had landed, more than 5000 people had settled around the mouth of the river. Much of the area to the south was mangrove swamps, but that was reclaimed and settled too.

European merchants soon realized that the beach was inappropriate as a landing area because of the swell. In agreement with Farquhar, they started to unload from the north bank of the river. When Raffles returned for his third and final visit in October 1822, he was horrified by the chaos of the town. He fell out with Farquhar and had him replaced by John Crawfurd.

From fishing village to international port

Within four years of its founding, Singapore had overshadowed Penang in importance and had grown from a fishing village to an international trading port. Thanks to its strategic location, it expanded quickly as an entrepôt, assuming the role Melaka had held in earlier centuries. But by 1833 the East India Company had lost its China trade monopoly, and consequently its interest in Singapore and the other Straits Settlements declined. Whilst Penang and Melaka declined, however, Singapore boomed. When the Dutch lifted trade restrictions in the 1840s, this boosted Singapore's economy again. New trade channels opened up with the Brooke government in Sarawak and with Thailand. The volume of trade increased fourfold between 1824 and 1868. However, due to the lack of restrictions and regulation, Singapore descended into a state of commercial anarchy, and in 1857 the merchants, who were dissatisfied with the administration, petitioned for Singapore to come under direct British rule.

Ten years later, the Colonial Office in London reluctantly made Singapore a crown colony. Then, in 1869, the Suez Canal opened, which meant that the Strait of Melaka was an even more obvious route for east-west shipping traffic than the Sunda Strait, which was controlled by the Dutch. Five years after that, Britain signed the first of its protection treaties with the Malay sultans on the Peninsula. The governor of Singapore immediately became the most senior authority for the Straits Settlements Colony, the Federated Malay States and the British protectorates of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo. In one stroke, Singapore had become the political capital of a small empire within an empire. As Malaysia's plantation economy grew (with the introduction of rubber in the late 19th century) and as its tin-mining industry expanded rapidly, Singapore emerged as the expanding territory's financing and administrative centre and export outlet. By then Singapore had become the uncontested commercial and transport centre of Southeast Asia. Between 1873 and 1913 there was an eightfold increase in Singapore's trade. Joseph Conrad dubbed it “the thoroughfare to the East”.

The Japanese invasion

The First World War gave Singapore a measure of strategic significance and by 1938 the colony was bristling with guns; it became known as Fortress Singapore. Unfortunately, the impregnable Fortress Singapore had anticipated that any attack would be from the sea and all its big guns were facing seawards. The Japanese entered through the back door. Japan attacked Malaya in December 1941 and, having landed on the northeast coast, they took the entire Peninsula in a lightning campaign, arriving in Johor Bahru at the end of January 1942.

The Japanese invasion of Singapore was planned by General Tomoyuki Yamashita and was co-ordinated from the Sultan Ibrahim tower in Johor Bahru, which afforded a commanding view over the strait and north Singapore. Yamashita became known as the 'Tiger of Malaya' for the speed with which the Japanese Army overran the Peninsula. The northeast coast of Singapore was heavily protected, but the northwest was vulnerable and this is where the Japanese found their opening. On 13 February 1942, the Japanese captured Kent Ridge and Alexandra Barracks on Alexandra Road. They entered the hospital, where they bayoneted the wounded and executed doctors, surgeons and nurses. The Allies and the local people were left in little doubt as to what was in store.

With their water supplies from the Peninsula cut off by the Japanese, and facing an epidemic because of thousands of rotting corpses, British Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival was forced to surrender in the Ford Motor Company boardroom on Bukit Timah Road, at 1950 on 15 February 1942. The fall of Singapore, which was a crushing humiliation for the British, left 140,000 Australian, British and Indian troops killed, wounded or captured. Japan had taken the island in one week.

Following the defeat, there were accusations that Sir Winston Churchill had 'abandoned' Singapore and let it fall to the Japanese when reinforcements were diverted elsewhere. The motivation for this, it has been suggested, was to get America to join the war. It is significant that Churchill never pressed for an inquiry into the fall of Singapore - the historian Peter Elphick suggests that Churchill was worried that he would emerge as the prime factor behind the capitulation. Apart from Churchill's supposed involvement in the surrender, there were other manifold reasons why Singapore fell. There is little doubt that the defence of Singapore itself, and Malaya more widely, was poorly handled. There was a widespread lack of appreciation of the martial skills of the Japanese. The forces defending Singapore lacked sufficient air cover and were poorly equipped, and training and morale were poor. The massive surrender certainly stands in stark contrast to Churchill's orders issued to General Wavell on 10 February: “There must at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake.”

The occupation

The Japanese ran a brutal regime and their occupation was characterized by terror, starvation and misery. They renamed Singapore Syonan - meaning 'light of the south'. The intention was to retain Syonan as a permanent colony, and turn it into a military base and centre in its 'Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere'. During the war, Singapore became the base of the collaborationist Indian National Army and the Indian Independence League.

In the fortnight that followed the surrender, the Japanese required all Chinese males aged 18-50 to register. 'Undesirables' were herded into trucks and taken for interrogation and torture by the Kempetai military police to the old YMCA building on Stamford Road, or were summarily bayoneted and shot. The purge was known as sook ching - or 'the purification campaign'. Thousands were killed (Singapore says 50,000, Japan says 6000), and most of the executions took place on Changi Beach and Sentosa. The sand on Changi Beach is said to have turned red from the blood.

Allied prisoners-of-war were herded into prison camps, the conditions of which are vividly described in James Clavell's book King Rat; the author was himself a Changi POW. Many of the Allied troops who were not dispatched to work on the Burma railway or sent to Sandakan in North Borneo, where 2400 died, were imprisoned in Selarang Barracks on the northeast side of the island.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered on 12 September 1945. The Japanese 5th and 18th Divisions, which had spearheaded the invasion of Singapore and had carried out civilian massacres, were from the towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. Lord Louis Mountbatten, who took the surrender, described it as the greatest day of his life.

In the wake of the war, the Japanese partially atoned for their 'blood debt' by extending 'gifts' and 'special loans' to Singapore, totalling some US$50 million. But Japanese war crimes were neither forgiven nor forgotten. Older Singaporeans noted with dismay and concern how Japan had rewritten its historical textbooks to gloss over its wartime atrocities, and many Singaporeans harbour a deep-seated mistrust of the Japanese. Among the most outspoken of them is former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. This mistrust remains, despite former Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's public apology in 1991 for what his countrymen had done 50 years before.

After the war

Following a few months under a British military administration, Singapore became a crown colony and was separated from the other Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Labuan. The Malay sultanates on the Peninsula were brought into the Malayan Union. The British decision to keep Singapore separate from the Malayan Union sparked protests on the island and resulted in the founding of its first political party, the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU), which wanted Singapore to be integrated into a socialist union. The Malayan Union was very unpopular on the mainland too and the British replaced it with the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Singapore was excluded again because Malaya's emergent Malay leaders did not want to upset the Peninsula's already delicate ethnic balance by incorporating predominantly Chinese Singapore.

In the same year, elections were held for Singapore's legislative council. The MDU, which had been heavily infiltrated by Communists, boycotted the election, allowing the Singapore Progressive Party (SPP) - dominated by an English-educated élite - to win a majority. The council was irrelevant to the majority of the population, however, and did nothing to combat poverty and unemployment and little to promote social services. When the Communist Emergency broke out on the Peninsula later the same year, the Malayan Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) was banned in Singapore and the MDU disbanded.

Lee Kuan Yew ('Harry Lee' to the British and Americans) returned from study in England in 1950. In 1954, as his political aspirations hardened, he let it be known that he wished to be called Lee Kuan Yew. Ten years later, the British foreign secretary George Brown is still alleged to have remarked to him: “Harry, you're the best bloody Englishman east of Suez”.

Political awakening

In 1955 a new constitution was introduced, which aimed to jolt the island's apathetic electorate into political life. Two new parties were formed to contest the election - the Labour Front under lawyer David Marshall (descended from an Iraqi Jewish family) and the People's Action Party (PAP), headed by Lee Kuan Yew. These two parties routed the conservative SPP and Marshall formed a minority government. His tenure as Chief Minister was marked by violence and by tempestuous exchanges in the Legislative Assembly with Lee. Marshall resigned in 1956, after failing to negotiate self-government for Singapore by his self-imposed deadline. His deputy, Lim Yew Hock (who later became a Muslim), took over as Chief Minister and more Communist-instigated violence followed.

The rise of the PAP

The influence of the PAP grew rapidly, in league with the communists and radical union leaders, and through the Chinese-language schools and trade unions. For the anti-communist Lee, it was a machiavellian alliance of convenience. He mouthed various anti-colonial slogans, but the British, at least, seemed to realize he was playing a long, and cunning, game. The communists came to dominate the PAP central committee and managed to sideline Lee before their leaders were arrested by Marshall's government. At the same time, Singapore's administration was rapidly localized: the four main languages (Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English) were given parity within the education system and locals took over the civil service. In 1957, as Malaya secured independence from the British, Singapore negotiated terms for full self-government. In 1959 the PAP swept the polls, winning a clear majority, and Lee became prime minister, a post he was to hold for more than three decades.

The PAP government began a programme of rapid industrialization and social reform. Singapore also moved closer to Malaysia, which Lee considered a vital move in order to guarantee free access to the Malaysian market and provide military security in the run-up to its own independence. But the PAP leaders were split over the wisdom of this move, and the extreme left wing, which had come to the forefront again, was becoming more vociferous in its opposition. Malaysia, for its part, felt threatened by Singapore's large Chinese population and by its increasingly Communist-orientated government. Tunku Abdul Rahman, independent Malaysia's first Prime Minister, voiced concerns that an independent Singapore could be 'a second Cuba', a Communist state on Malaysia's doorstep. Instead of letting the situation deteriorate, however, Tunku Abdul Rahman cleverly proposed Singapore's inclusion in the Federation of Malaysia.

The Federation of Malaysia and independence

Rahman hoped the racial equilibrium of the Federation would be balanced by the inclusion of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo. Lee liked the idea, but the radical left wing of the PAP were vehemently opposed to it, having no desire to see Singapore absorbed by a Malay- dominated, anti-Communist regime, and in 1961 they tried to topple Lee's government. Their bid narrowly failed and resulted in the left-wing dissenters breaking away to form the Barisan Sosialis (BS), or Socialist Front. Despite opposition to the merger, a referendum showed that a majority of Singapore's population supported it. In February 1963, in Operation Coldstore, more than 100 Communist and pro-Communist politicians, trades unionists and student leaders were arrested, including half the BS Central Executive Committee.

On 31 August 1963, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia. The following month, Singapore declared unilateral independence from Britain. The PAP also won another victory in an election and secured a comfortable majority. Almost immediately, however, the new Federation ran into trouble due to Indonesian objections, and Jakarta launched its Konfrontasi - or Confrontation. Indonesian saboteurs infiltrated Singapore and began a bombing spree which severely damaged Singapore's trade. In mid-1964, Singapore was wracked by communal riots which caused great concern in Kuala Lumpur, and Lee and Tunku Abdul Rahman clashed over what they considered undue interference in each others' internal affairs. Tensions rose still further when the PAP contested Malaysia's general election in 1964, and Lee attempted to unite all Malaysian opposition parties under the PAP banner. While the PAP won only one of the 10 seats, it petrified many Malay politicians on the mainland. Finally, on 9 August 1965, Kuala Lumpur forced Singapore to agree to pull out of the Federation, and it became an independent state against the wishes of the government. At a press conference announcing Singapore's expulsion from the Federation, Lee Kuan Yew wept.

As a footnote to Singapore's expulsion from the Federation, in June 1996 Lee Kuan Yew suggested that the island republic might rejoin the Federation should certain conditions be met - like no racial favouritism. Few other politicans, either in Singapore or Malaysia, took the proposal seriously.

See more Singapore travel guide at here.