History of Singapore

Fishing Village to Global City

The history of Singapore is one of luck, location and astute planning that changed a small, backwater fishing hole into one of the world's leading global hubs for trade, finance and travel.

Much of what makes up Singapore today - its focus on banking and trade, the oil industry, ethnic quarters, the links to China, English as the official language - were already characteristics during the developing years of the colony.

Today, these things form the bedrock of Singapore.

I'll try not to bore you with the usual day-by-day accounts of what happened in the history of Singapore. You can get all that nitty-gritty at this site, Country Study History of Singapore. There are a few highlights in the history of Singapore that are fascinating to know, though, so bear with me for a few moments while I guide you through it.

Essentially, the history of Singapore can be divided into three eras. May the historians among you may forgive me for this wide classification.

  • The Ancient Era
  • Colonial Rule and Japanese Occupation
  • Independence and the Rise to Modern Day Singapore

History of Singapore - The Ancient Era


Singapore was already known to Chinese traders in the 3d century and some say Greek geographer Ptolemy mentioned a trading location between Asia and the Mediterranean as early as the 2nd century.

That could have been Singapore, or anywhere else around here, so let's pretend it was for the sake of a superlative.

Trade, Trade and More Trade

However far back you want to go, though, trade is the overarching theme in the history of Singapore and the period from 300 AD to the 1500's see outposts established here for Buddhist, and later Islamic empires based in Sumatra.

Chinese traders

Even Siam, today's Thailand, owned the place for a while and clashed for predominance of a strategic location in the trade routes within the Malay-Indonesian archipelagos.

Excavations at Fort Canning Park, the hill facing the CBD, showed that the port was always busy and trade flourishing fairly evenly throughout the ages.

Temasek and Singapura

It was during these times that two prominent names in the history of Singapore cropped up: Tamasik, or sea-village, and Singapura, the name given to the local settlement by a ship-wrecked Sumatran prince.

Now there's a story: the guy thought he saw a lion (Sanskrit 'singa') dashing through the jungle and promptly renamed the village - so says the myth.

Yea lion never really materialized of course - how could it, so far away from its habitat - but the name stuck: Lion City or Singapura.

I still wonder what he was drinking to have seen a lion in these parts, though.

The European Shuffle

The history of Singapore from the 16th century onwards is a rumble-tumble tale of European colonial powers having their way with the region.

First the Portuguese threw out the Sumatrans. They in turn got tossed by the Dutch who finally got the boot by the Empire-building English.

Of course, all of this colonizing was done in the name of God and Glory, but in fact, the sober economic drivers behind most of the maneuvering were the lucrative trade routes between India and China, and especially the nascent opium trade that made for pretty handsome profits and tax revenues.

History of Singapore - Colonial Rule and Japanese Occupation

The history of Singapore really got interesting when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles appeared on the scene. Thomas Raffles He was the Lt. Governor at Bencoolen in Sumatra, Indonesia and ever so very unhappy about the presence of the Dutch and their dominance of trade.

Raffles and Opium

As mentioned, one thinks of spices, silk, timber or bone China as the usual suspects behind all the wheeling and dealing back then, but the opium flowing into China from India was becoming - by far - the most important trading good in the ports around the region.

Unfortunately, those nefarious Dutchmen restricted and taxed the English flow of the drug badly enough for Raffles to ask his boss, the Governor-General of India, for the money to outfit an expedition and find a place to put the English flag in the ground.

His specific goal: find a port suitable for big ships, bypass the Dutch and generally stick a needle into their colonial eyes.

Divide and Conquer - Singapore is Born

Crafty Raffles landed in Singapore on 29 January of 1819 and liked what he saw: wood for shipbuilding, fresh water and a port deep enough for cargo ships. And no Dutchmen.

He also liked the fact that the rulers of the area didn't like their Sultan, Abdu'r Rahman, who was based in Johor (today's mainland Malaysia). They rather took to his brother, Hussein, who they saw as the real Sultan.

Raffles saw his opportunity, smuggled brother Hussein back to Singapore, offered him the 'rightful' Sultanate and quickly made a treaty: yearly payments against trading rights.

A bit more than a week after landing, the document was signed and Singapore was born.

Instant Success

Raffles left the newly established post in the hands of his administrator William Farquhar, a few Indian soldiers and some cannons, and headed back to his real job on Sumatra.

Wisely, though, he left some money for getting things going, but decreed that the port would not charge fees, unlike the Dutch ports all around the region.

He also installed a guy on St. John's Island - just outside of Singapore harbor - to signal passing ships about the new kid on the trade block.

It took all of six weeks and already a hundred boats were anchoring in the new port, selling high to the start up trade center.

By 1825, the duty free port was attracting some 20 million Spanish dollars of trade volume - quite a lot back then - with the population reaching 10,000 souls.

Singapore Grows - So Do Drugs and Crime

The hapless Sultan - still sort of the ruler in Singapore - finally gave up all rights to Singapore in 1824 in exchange for cash and annuities and a few years later, the town and hinterland became part of the British East India Company's Straits Settlements, encompassing Singapore, Penang and Melacca.

The British East India Company, working as the quasi-representative of the British Crown, profited nicely from the extraordinary growth in free trade but, unsurprisingly, did not invest much into administration or policing.

Since poor (literally) Farguhar didn't really have an adequate income stream to work with, he auctioned off gambling, opium and alcohol rights to the highest bidders.

Little wonder: drugs, prostitution and secret societies became common. In addition, housing and sanitary conditions were appalling and cholera and smallpox epidemics regularly reared their ugly heads.

Raffles Returns to a 'Place of Considerable Magnitude and Importance'

Raffles returned in 1822 and began a systematic development of the settlement.

Raffles Plan, Singapore

He drew up a town plan and assigned spaces for churches, gardens, police stations and shipyards. He also installed a tax system.

In addition, various ethnic groups were settled into separate areas, mainly to ensure they didn't go at each others throats after bouts of opium-fuelled gambling.

In spite of Raffles' enlightened administration, the following years of growth continued to spawn major problems with crime and sanitation - the Settlement simply didn't have the money or the staff to tackle all the issues.

Things got so bad at this point in the history of Singapore - especially after Chinese secret societies staged deadly gang wars - the Empire made Singapore into a Crown Colony in 1867 and installed a larger and more effective administration to fight the many ills that had sprung up.

Forced prostitution, secret societies and illegal immigration practices were banned outright and that did make things a bit better. But, the housing and sanitation problems were never really addressed effectively and Singapore remained a squalorous and filthy place for the most part.

It actually took almost a full century to finally solve the housing problem with the massive subsidized HDB estates one can see today.

Singapore and the Suez Canal

Singapore continued to develop, in line with the rise of British colonial power and especially due to the massive exploitation of resources in Malaysia: tin, copper,rubber and sugar.

Singapore became a huge warehouse for these goods to be shipped all over the empire.

Once the Suez Canal opened, Singapore lay directly on the route from Europe to Asia. In the minds of the locals and the British Colonial Office, it had now become firmly anchored as an integral part of the British colonial chain in Asia.

A Navy Port, But No Ships

British Colonialism brought with it various conflicts in greater Asia, so defenses in Singapore were gradually beefed up, too, especially in expectation of the war with Germany.

Nothing happened, in the end, except for a mutiny, but the later rise of Japanese imperialism and its assault on Manchuria led to the construction of a major naval base and coastal defenses on the island, leading the British press to refer to Singapore as the Gibraltar of the East.

The British Navy finished its Singapore base in 1939, complete with an airfield and protective cannons. The many hills overlooking the approaches to the harbor were fortified with big guns that can be visited even today.

Unfortunately, though, when the Japanese finally did march into Singapore, the Navy had little with which to defend the city: most ships were deployed elsewhere or had been infamously sunk before arriving to help the defense forces.

The Japanese ground troops had also not kept to British planning. They landed in peninsular Malaysia instead of assaulting from the sea, and fought their way down to Singapore through Johor, all the while blowing the base, the airfields, the city and all those sea-facing cannons to smithereens.

Brutal Japanese Occupation

History of Singapore, Surrender

The Japanese finally occupied Singapore in 1942, literally crossing the Johor Straits in rubber boats, and fighting street by street, hill by hill, until the Allies gave up.

Close to 70,000 prisoners were taken in the initial surrender, interned at Changi in the eastern part of the island, and after interrogation or torture, transported to Burma for the infamous railroad projects, mainly to be worked and marched to death.

Many Chinese civilians in Malaysia and Singapore were systematically massacred, notably at Punggol and Changi, with the occupiers targeting intellectuals, civil servants and journalists in particular.

Schools closed down, the official economy slowed dramatically and black market dealings became a way of life.

Essentials like food and fuel became scarce and black marketeering was an accepted way of life.

Many of Singapore's leaders after the war were strongly marked by their experience during occupation and say they owe their flexibility and hard-nosed business and administration acumen to those times.

The Japanese finally gave up the island in September of 1945 to the British, fully three weeks after Japan's formal surrender to the Allies and quietly retreated to Changi to become prisoners themselves.

Today, a number of sites in Singapore commemorate the history of Singapore's battles and the Japanese occupation.

Check out Labrador Park and the Southern Ridges for some old cannons and gun emplacements to get an idea of how the coast was defended during this episode in the history of Singapore.

The Kranji War Memorial and Cemetery is the resting place for more than 4,000 service people and also hosts the graves of early Presidents of Singapore.

The History of Singapore - Changi Prison Chapel and Museum shows life in the Japanese prison camp at Changi.

Visit the Battle Box in Fort Canning Park to get a feel for the final days of the siege of Singapore as seen by the British commanders in their underground bunker in Fort Canning Park.

Finally, visit the Civilian War Memorial right in the center of Singapore in the area surrounded by Suntec City, the Padang, St. Andrew's Cathedral and the Esplanade. This commemorates the many civilian deaths during the war, and especially during the battle for Singapore.

Find out what happened after the war....

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