History of Singapore

Independence and a Phenomenal Rise

The history of Singapore after WW II can be broadly sketched as

- rising from the ruins

- taking new stock of the colonial 'motherland' that had dismally failed to protect the island

- unification with Malaysia, soon to be followed by

- a dramatic and almost overnight declaration of independence, and finally

- a phenomenal and sometimes precarious rise in prosperity and stability to the Singapore of today.

The War is Over - The British Fade and Communists Rise

Like most everywhere after WWII, Singapore was administered - more or less ably - by the military. They focused on getting basic utilities back up, roads repaired, food delivered and civilian life back on track.

By 1949, most economic indicators were back to levels before the war and the worst effects of the fighting had been removed.

Political life also returned.

The Communists, who had played a major role in the fight against the occupiers in Singapore and Malaysia, had become a big political force in Asia through the founding of the People's Republic of China, and began jockeying for influence in Malaya and Singapore.

The locals were fairly open to this: their old masters had been swept away by the Japanese and done precious little to save them. Why not look at a different system of rule?

At the same time, the British, cash strapped and overextended anyway, were willing to give more autonomy to their colonies worldwide. They declared Singapore a separate Crown Colony with its own administration in 1946, and staged very limited first elections in 1948.

The communist insurgency in Malaya and partly in Singapore in the same year laid the foundation for something the Singaporean government was always worried about: Communist groups trying to win the heart, souls and governments in both colonies.

The response: stop them with an stringent and harsh Internal Security Act, which exists still today.

The fight against the communists continued until well into the 60s and the 70s, with many sympathizers detained under the ISA.

Almost There - Self Government and Independence

Another election took place in 1951, and the years until 1963 saw a back and forth between newly-founded parties wanting part of the action, the British government more or less supporting self-government and the communists continuing to call for strikes and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

The PAP and Lee Kwan Yew

Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore

In 1959, the People's Action Party - in power still today - won the election and one of the region's, if not the world's, most prominent political figures entered the stage, Lee Kwan Yew.

Most of the government policies that dominate Singapore were begun in by him and his People's Action Party 1959: creating tax incentives for foreign investments, establishing industrial estates, building subsidized housing via the Housing Development Board, training a skilled workforce and consolidating trade unions to avoid fractures in society.

Lee Kwan Yew drove these policies strongly - some say ruthlessly - but the people liked it mostly and supported the PAP in election after election up until today.

Into Malaysia, Out of Malaysia

Interestingly enough, in spite of Lee Kwan Yew's outspoken character and his strong bend to independent leadership, he and the early PAP saw the continued future of Singapore, as they did the whole history of Singapore, strongly linked with Malaya, even if it meant submitting to Kuala Lumpur.

Then again: a lonely island with no resources, a jobs shortage and communist agitation...what better way to go?

The merger of Malaya, Sabah, Serawak and Singapor took place in September 1963 and Singapore became a state within the newly formed country of Malaysia.

Right away the problems began.

The Chinese felt discriminated by pro-Malay policies, Malay parties stood for elections in Singapore, contrary to agreements with the PAP, and fears arose that economic power would shift away from Kuala Lumpur, to Singapore.

Even Indonesia - unhappy about a big and united Malaysia - meddled in the disputes and bombed MacDonald House on Orchard Road, killing two female bank employees, in an attempt to fuel instability.

Race riots also broke out, killing 23 people, and disrupting everything from bus services and transport to schools. Food shortages broke out as well - no trucks got through.

Finally! Independence.

Singapore independence

Things came to a head on 9 August 1965, when the Malaysian Parliament expelled Singapore from the Federation. A few hours later, the Parliament of Singapore declared Singapore an independent nation.

For many, this was probably the most dramatic day in the history of Singapore.

And the future looked grim.

Indonesia was still agitating, unemployment was very high, the water supply was threatened.

It was simply not clear if the small city, on an island without resources, could survive alone.

The policies already implemented by the government before the merger were now carried out even more strongly and complemented by a drive to create a unique Singaporean identity to rally the population.

Singapore joined the UN a few weeks after independence, stepped up the drive to attract foreign investment by oil companies and banks, invested in schools and universities, installed a national military service and set up a social security system and a sovereign wealth fund to ensure financial independence.

The perennial problem of housing was solved within ten years through a massive construction program of public housing and planned communities throughout the island, giving Singapore its characteristic look that we can see today.

Probably the most important policy decision taken in the history of Singapore by the PAP was to severely punish corruption at all levels of government and to pay civil servants and ministers well enough to avoid temptation.

Today's Singapore

This has led to Singapore ranking at the top of every clean-government ranking in the world and making the place extremely efficient and friendly to business.

Although Lee Kwan Yew's influence is waning and the PAP took - for Singaporean standards - a bad beating at the polls in 2010, the party and its position remain very strong.

Many Singaporeans complain about a lack of 'real' democracy, but continue to enjoy the prosperity and stability given to them by the government, the party and ultimately, Mr Yew.

Today, most of the issues in the political arena center around affordable housing, the influx of immigrant labor and skill improvements and wages - hardly the rip-roaring, life-threatening and urgent issues of the past.

Many of the region's richest flock to Singapore for health care, banking, schooling and even permanent residency, seeing the island as a respite from home country uncertainties.

If anything, the history of Singapore has proved Raffles right - the fishing village by the sea has turned into a a 'place of considerable magnitude and importance' that not even he could have envisaged in 1822.

If you want to dig deeper into the history of Singapore, have look at the following sites.

The history of Singapore via personal accounts:
I Remember - Singapore in the past through individual stories.
Yesterday.sg - pictures and stories contributed by citizens.
History of Singapore via an interactive timeline app and yearbooks.

The military history of Singapore:
Singapore's past from a military perspective

The history of Singapore Chinatown with old photos.
History of Chinatown

And finally, the history of Singapore via a street directory of historic places.
Street directory of historical sites in Singapore

Back to Singapore's earlier history

City Hall Singapore
Parachute, Singapore
Frangipani, Singapore
Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore
HDB, Singapore
Mosque, Singapore