Colourful Colonial History

Many different nationalities and civilisations have played a part in shaping Singapore into the vibrant and multi-cultural society that it is today.

Singapore’s Early Years

The first recorded account of Singapore dates back to the 3rd century. It was written about in Chinese documents.

Myths and folklore tell of a prince who visited Singapore in the 13th century. The prince is said to have seen a lion, and thus named the island Singapura, which translates to the Lion City in Malay.

Invasions and Settlement

Singapore was invaded by Emperors from India, visited by people from the Mongol Empire, and settled by small communities of Chinese and Malay people. Throughout the 14th century, Singapore was an important trading port.

Towards the end of the 14th century, Singapore found itself in the middle of a fight between Java and Siam over the Malay Peninsula. The Majapahit Empire, from Java, captured Singapore and ruled for several years. The island then became an important port within the Malacca Sultanate and then the Johor Sultanate.

Portuguese forces obliterated the settlements in Singapore in the late 1500s, and there were no major events in the area for the following couple of hundred years.

Beginnings of Modern Singapore and European Colonisation

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With the Malay Peninsula and islands being gradually captured by colonisers from Europe, early Portuguese invaders were overpowered by the Dutch. The spice trade rose in importance and the Dutch held the power over most of the area. At this point, the British had just a small presence in the area.

British ambitions of having a strong base in the area led Sir Stamford Raffles to Singapore. Seeing the potential for a strategic port, the British managed to gain control of the air in order to set up a trading post. Modern Singapore was born in 1819, with the signing of the treaty that allowed the British to be in the area. Raffles left Farquhar in charge of establishing the colony,

Before British control, Singapore was home to around just 1,000 people. However, the population quickly swelled, with many people moving to the island, and by 1869 there were around 100,000 people living in Singapore!

Growth of Singapore

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With the decision that Singapore was to be a free port, many traders opted to use Singapore, rather than Dutch controlled ports that often had high taxes and numerous trade limitations. Trade through, and in, Singapore continued to grow, but the early years also saw lots of chaos, lawlessness, debauchery, and social problems. Upon Raffles’ return, he sought to organise Singapore into a more sustainable environment.

The area came under the control of British Indian rule, but as problems continued to escalate on the island, the decision was taken to make Singapore a Crown Colony and bring it under direct British administration. Although many steps were taken to try and eradicate a lot of the social problems that existed at that time, progress was somewhat slow. Economically, Singapore was prospering.  Socially, it was floundering.

Influence of the World Wars

WW1 did not have much of an impact on Singapore, and a naval base was built on the island following the war. The Second World War affected Singapore a lot more – Japan had aims to capture SE Asia, and Singapore was a prime target.

On February 15th 1942, the British surrendered Singapore to the Japanese in the biggest such event in the history of the British military.The Japanese occupation lasted until 1945, during which time the country was renamed as Syonon-to. Conditions were very harsh, and sometimes brutal, under Japanese rule. The Chinese population in particular suffered greatly, with mass executions, and others were used as forced labour on the Thai-Burma Railway.

Post War Period

The Japanese left Singapore after the country surrendered to Allied forces in 1945. The British returned, but it was a few years before the country fully recovered. Anti-British sentiment grew, with increasing calls for independence. After a period of allowing more and more self-governance and freedom, Singapore became independent in 1958.

In 1963, Singapore joined with Malaya, Sarawak, and North Borneo to form Malaysia. This tumultuous union lasted just two years, however, with Singapore being expelled in 1965.The newly independent country joined the UN and the Commonwealth and, despite early teething problems, was starting to flourish and prosper by the 1980s.

Singapore Today

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Singapore is a thriving country today, with a steady economy, excellent infrastructure, and high standards of living. There are many reminders of the past all throughout the country, with numerous architectural styles reflecting different periods. You’ll notice British colonial buildings, traditional Chinese shop houses, early wooden houses on stilts, many traditional religious buildings, buildings in the Art Deco style, and the gleaming towering modern skyscrapers.