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History of Singapore

Table of contents
1 Pre-Colonial Singapore
2 Founding of Modern Singapore
3 The Straits Settlements
4 Towards Self-Government
5 The Malaysia Proposal
6 Independence
7 Coming of Age

Pre-Colonial Singapore

Written accounts of the early history of Singapore are sketchy and the names used to refer to the country are varied. In the third century, a Chinese account gave reference to Singapore as Pu-luo-chung, or island at the end of a peninsula. In 1320, however, the Mongol court sent a mission to a place called Long Yamen (Dragon's Tooth Strait) to get elephants. This probably referred to Keppel Harbour. A visitor from China, Wang Dayuan, who came around 1330, called the main settlement Pancur (spring), and reported that there were Chinese already living here. One of the earliest references to Singapore as Temasek, or Sea Town, was found in the Javanese Nagarakretagama' of 1365. The name was also mentioned in a Vietnamese source at around the same time. By the end of the 14th century, the Sanskrit name, Singapura (Lion City), became commonly used.

At that time, Singapore was caught in the struggles between Siam (now Thailand) and the Java-based Majapahit Empire for control over the Malay Peninsula. According to the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), Singapore was defeated in one Majapahit attack, but Iskandar Shah, or Parameswara, a prince of Palembang, later killed the local chieftain and installed himself as the island's new ruler. Shortly after, he was driven out, either by the Siamese or by the Javanese forces of the Majapahit Empire. He fled north to Muar in the Malay Peninsula, where he founded the Malacca Sultanate. Singapore remained an important part of the Malacca Sultanate; it was the fief of the admirals (laksamanas), including the famous Hang Tuah.

Founding of Modern Singapore

The British, who were extending their dominion in India, and whose trade with China in the second half of the 18th century was expanding, saw the need for a port of call in this region to refit, revitalise and protect their merchant fleet, as well as to forestall any advance by the Dutch in the East Indies. As a result, they established trading posts in Penang (1786) and Singapore (1819), and captured Malacca from the Dutch (1795).

In late 1818, Lord Hastings, Governor-General of India, gave tacit approval to Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen, to establish a trading station at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. On January 29, 1819, Raffles landed on the island of Singapore after having surveyed other nearby islands. The next day, he concluded a preliminary treaty with Temenggong Abdu'r Rahman to set up a trading post here. Although the Temenggong is the de facto ruler, Singapore was officially part of the Johor-Riau Sultanate. Sultan Abdul Rahman of Johor had signed a treaty the previous year with the Dutch, effectively putting the whole of his empire under Dutch control. Obviously Raffles had a problem on hand.

However, Raffles knew there were some political disputes within the Johor court about the legitimacy of the newly crowned Sultan, who was a younger son of the former Sultan. Raffles smuggled the eldest son Tengku Hussein (who was in exile) into Singapore. On February 6, 1819, Raffles proclaimed Tengku Hussein as the rightful Sultan of Johor recognised by the British Empire. A formal treaty was concluded with the "new" Sultan, giving the British the sole right to build a factory in Singapore.

The Dutch Governor-General of Malacca, Timmerman Thyssen and the Governor-General of Java, Baron van der Capellan, raised some rather violent objections to Raffles' trickery. Lord Hastings dispatched reinforcements to Singapore from Penang, despite Colonel Bannerman, Governor of Penang's reluctance.

The British government did not hear about Raffles' quarrel with the Dutch until August 1819. By then, Singapore had started to prove to be a valuable colony for the British. Besides, the Dutch owed the British a favour for their support during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). By 1820, it was earning revenue, and three years later, its trade surpassed that of Penang. In 1824, Singapore's status as a British possession was formalised by two new treaties.

The first was the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of March 1824, by which the Dutch withdrew all objections to the British occupation of Malaya, Singapore and ceded all their bases in the Malay Pennisula and India to Britain. In return, the British gave all their bases in Sumatra to the Netherlands. An imaginary line was drawn through the Straits of Malacca and the south of Singapore, dividing the area into a British "sphere of influence" and a Dutch "sphere of influence". This effectively saw the end of the Johor-Riau Sultanate, as the Sultanate was broken into 3 parts, the state of Johor in the Malay Pennisula and Singapore (which came under the British), and the Riau Archipelago (controlled by the Dutch, and is now part of Indonesia).

The second treaty was made with Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdu'r Rahman in August, by which the two owners ceded the island out right to the British in return for increased cash payments and pensions.

The Straits Settlements

Singapore, together with Malacca and Penang, the two British settlements in the Malay Peninsula, became the Straits Settlements in 1826, under the control of British India. By 1832, Singapore had become the centre of government for the three areas. On April 1, 1867, the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony under the jurisdiction of the Colonial Office in London.

With the advent of the steam ship in the mid-1860s and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Singapore became a major port of call for ships plying between Europe and East Asia. And with the development of rubber planting, especially after the 1870s, it also became the main sorting and export centre in the world for rubber. Before the close of the 19th century, Singapore was experiencing unprecedented prosperity and trade expanded eightfold between 1873 and 1913. The prosperity attracted immigrants from areas around the region. By 1860, the population had grown to 80,792. The Chinese accounted for 61.9 per cent of the number; the Malays and Indians 13.5% and 16.05% respectively; and others, including the Europeans, 8.5%.

The automobile industry's demand for rubber from Southeast Asia and the packaging industry's need for tin helped make Singapore one of the world's major ports.

In 1921, the British constructed a naval base, which was soon supplemented by an air base. The island's peace and prosperity ended with World War II, when Japanese aircraft bombed the sleeping city in the early hours of December 8, 1941. A further setback occurred on December 10 when the British battleship HMS Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, sent to Singapore as a deterrant against Japanese aggression were sunk by Japanese aircraft east of the Malay peninsula, thus depriving the Allies of their last capital ships in the Asia-Pacific region. Japanese troops advanced rapidly down the Malay peninsula, often outflanking their opponents through the jungle. Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942, despite the fact that its garrison outnumbered their opponents, who were critically short of supplies. It was renamed Syonan (Light of the South). It remained under Japanese occupation for three and a half years -until September 1945, when the British returned.

Towards Self-Government

The British forces returned in September 1945 and Singapore came under the British Military Administration. When the period of military administration ended in March 1946, the Straits Settlements were dissolved. On April 1, 1946, Singapore became a Crown Colony. Penang and Malacca became part of the Malayan Union in 1946, and later the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

Postwar Singapore was a contrast to the prewar country of transient immigrants. The people, especially the merchant class, clamored for a say in the government. Constitutional powers were initially vested in the Governor who had an advisory council of officials and nominated non-officials. This evolved into the separate Executive and Legislative Councils in July 1947. The Governor retained firm control over the colony but there was provision for the election of six members to the Legislative Council by popular vote. Hence, Singapore's first election was held on March 20, 1948.

When the Malayan Communist Party tried to take over Malaya and Singapore by force, a state of emergency was declared in June 1948. The emergency lasted for 12 years. Towards the end of 1953, the British government appointed a commission under Sir George Rendel to review Singapore's constitutional position and make recommendations for change. The Rendel proposals were accepted by the government and served as the basis of a new constitution that gave Singapore a greater measure of self-government.

The 1955 election was the first lively political contest in Singapore's history. Automatic registration expanded the register of voters from 75,000 to over 300,000, and for the first time, it included large numbers of Chinese, who had manifested political apathy in previous elections. The Labor Front won 10 seats. The People's Action Party (PAP), which fielded four candidates, won three seats. David Marshall became Singapore's first Chief Minister on April 6, 1955, with a coalition government made up of his own Labor Front, the United Malays National Organization and the Malayan Chinese Association.

Marshall resigned on June 6, 1956, after the breakdown of constitutional talks in London on attaining full internal self government. Lim Yew Hock, Marshall's deputy and minister for Labor became the Chief Minister. The March 1957 constitutional mission to London led by Lim Yew Hock was successful in negotiating the main terms of a new Singapore Constitution. On May 28, 1958, the Constitutional Agreement was signed in London.

Singapore became self-governing in 1959. In May that year Singapore's first general election was held to choose 51 representatives to the first fully elected Legislative Assembly. The PAP won 43 seats, gleaning 53.4 percent of the total votes. On June 3, the new Constitution confirming Singapore as a self-governing state was brought into force by the proclamation of the Governor, Sir William Goode, who became the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara (Head of state). The first Government of the State of Singapore was sworn in on June 5, with Lee Kuan Yew as Singapore's first Prime Minister.

The PAP had come to power in a united front with the communists to fight British colonialism. The communists controlled many mass organizations, especially of workers and students. It was an uneasy alliance between the PAP moderates and the pro-communists, with each side trying to use the other for its own ultimate objective -in the case of the moderates, to obtain full independence for Singapore as part of a non-communist Malaya; in the case of the communists, to work towards a communist take-over.

The tension between the two factions worsened from 1960 and led to an open split in 1961, with the pro-communists subsequently forming a new political party, the Barisan Sosialis. The other main players in this drama were the Malayans, who, in 1961, agreed to Singapore's merger with Malaya as part of a larger federation. This was also to include British territories in Borneo, with the British controlling the foreign affairs, defense and internal security of Singapore.

The Malaysia Proposal

On May 27, 1961, the Malayan Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, proposed closer political and economic co-operation between the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo and Brunei in the form of a merger. The main terms of the merger, agreed on by him and Lee Kuan Yew, were to have central government responsibility for defense, foreign affairs and internal security, but local autonomy in matters pertaining to education and labor. A referendum on the terms of the merger held in Singapore on September 1, 1962 showed the people's overwhelming support for PAP's plan to go ahead with the merger.

Malaysia was formed on September 16, 1963, and consisted of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo (now Sabah). Brunei opted out. Indonesia and the Philippines opposed the merger. President Sukarno of Indonesia worked actively against it during the three years of Indonesian confrontation.


The merger proved to be short-lived. The main issue was demographic in that traditionally ethnic Malays had dominated the Malaysian political system and ethnic Chinese had dominated the Malaysian economy. The inclusion of Singapore opened the possibility that ethnic Chinese could dominate both the political and economic systems. Although there were attempts to create a non-communal pan-Malaysian identity, these proved unsuccessful, and to preserve the ethnic balance within Malaysia, Singapore was separated from the rest of Malaysia on August 9, 1965, and became a sovereign, democratic and independent nation.

Independent Singapore was admitted to the United Nations on September 21, 1965, and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations on October 15 1965. On December 22 1965, it became a Republic, with Yusof bin Ishak as the republic's first President.

Indonesia adopted a policy of "confrontation" against the new federation, charging that it was a "British colonial creation," and severed trade with Malaysia. The move particularly affected Singapore, since Indonesia had been the island's second-largest trading partner. The political dispute was resolved in 1966, and Indonesia resumed trade with Singapore.

Since admission into the UN, Singapore's strategy for survival and development has been essentially to take advantage of its strategic location and the favourable world economy.

Coming of Age

A massive industrialisation program was launched with the extension of the Jurong industrial estate and the creation of smaller estates in Kallang Park, Tanjong Rhu, Redhill, Tiong Bahru and Tanglin Halt. The Employment Act and the Industrial Relations (Amendment) Act were passed in 1968 to promote industrial peace and discipline among the workforce.

The Economic Development Board was reorganised in 1968 and the Jurong Town Corporation and the Development Bank of Singapore were set up in the same year. In 1970, the Monetary Authority of Singapore was established to formulate and implement Singapore's monetary policies.

In 1979, after the shock of two oil crises, the Government started a program of economic restructuring. This was achieved by modifying education policies, expanding technology and computer education, offering financial incentives to industrial enterprises and launching a productivity campaign.

Public housing was given top priority. New towns sprang up and Housing and Development Board apartments were sold at a low cost. To encourage home ownership, Singaporeans were allowed to use their Central Provident Fund savings to pay for these apartments.

With the British Government's sudden decision in 1967 to withdraw its armed forces from Singapore by the end of 1971, Singapore set out to build up its own defence forces. The Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute was established in 1966 and compulsory national service was introduced in 1967. A Singapore Air Defense Command and a Singapore Maritime Command were set up in 1969. In August 1967, Singapore joined Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Singapore entered the 1970s as a politically stable state with a high rate of economic growth. However this has been at the cost of civil liberties that many in the developed world take for granted. The ruling party has not infrequently made use of judicial procedures to bankrupt opposition M.Ps. Notable examples include the opposition politician Mr. J.B. Jeyaretnam (recently declared bankrupt as a result of a defamation suit) and Mr. Tang Liang Hong (currently in self-imposed exile in Australia).

However, the disturbing aspect of Singaporean politics is not its seeming oppressiveness. That would be an over-simplification and unfair assessment. It is the 'self-censorship' imposed by the citizenry upon themselves and contrary to beliefs, not policed by any authority. No credible opposition has existed mainly because of measures imposed by the ruling party to stifle opposition, such as the establishment of para-political institutions to channel issues of major concerns from the citizenry to the ruling elites for consideration in policy making. The main reason why the People's Action Party has won every election with overwhelming (albeit eroding) majority is due to the fact that its firm control of para-political institutions in the country has enabled it to become the most responsive and viable political party around.

Chan Heng Chee, the current Singaporean Ambassador to the United States has described Singapore as having the characteristic of an "Admin State", a legalistic institution whose corporatised structure, coupled with the emergence of a politically apathetic citizenry has made competitive politics seemingly irrelevant; the regarded emphasis in its selection of leaders being the selection of technocrats instead of popular politicians as the governing elite. The P.A.P. process of rejuvenation mostly reinforces this notion in recent years, with cabinet ministers being groomed from personalities with strong administrative experiences. Extremely lucrative pay-scales await those selected for high-level government positions to retain their expertise and to decrease the likelihood of corrupt practices more likely inherent in poorly-paid civil servants. The de-politicisation of the citizenry, coupled with the P.A.P. leadership's obsession for efficiency, makes the Singapore political system quite unlike any other in the world: bureaucratic to the Weberian extreme and responsive and aggressive in the execution of policies, honed by decades of existence in a fast-paced environment which does not tolerate mistakes.

The politics of survival is an item of government propaganda drummed into the citizenry since its separation from Malaysia in 1965. Small, rich and dynamic and geographically positioned in the midst of large, predominantly Muslim neighbours, its sense of insecurity and inherent vulnerability draws parallels not from the liberal-democratic west, but from Israel, which incidentally greatly aided Singapore's establishment of its armed forces after the British withdrawal and which it continues to maintain close diplomatic relations with to this day.