Pre 19th Century
Singapore’s earliest history, beyond its being known as a small port town, remains unclear; we do know that it was being referred to as Singapura (meaning “Lion City” in Sanskrit) by the late fifteenth century, although it is rather unlikely that there were ever any lions here!
Founding of Modern Singapore
It has been agreed that the founding of modern Singapore took place when Thomas Stamford Raffles landed on the banks of the Singapore River and established a trading post on 29 January 1819.
The island at this time consisted of little more than swamps, but Raffles was able to see its potential as a deep water harbour. Treaties were eventually struck with the ruling chieftains and the island passed into British control with the signing of the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824.
A Golden Age
Singapore expanded very quickly because of its geographical location and its introduction of tariff-free trade, and thousands of people began to arrive to participate energetically to the boom. Raffles, to neutralise possible racial conflicts, divided the city up at this time into the ethnic districts (e.g Little India, Chinatown) that still exist today.
In 1826, Singapore united with Penang and Malacca to form the Straits Settlements, which then became a British crown colony in 1867.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 meant that Singapore became a major staging post on the busy shipping route between Asia and Europe, as well as a world centre for rubber exports. As a further symbol of Singapore’s increasing importance, Raffles Hotel was opened in 1887. This period, up until the outbreak of the First World War is sometimes called the golden age of Singapore.
The Fall of Singapore
In 1941 Japan invaded the Malay Peninsula, and on 7 February 1942 invaded Singapore in what has come to be regarded as possibly the worst defeat in British military history; Singapore surrendered on 15 February 1942.
Japan ruled Singapore for three and a half years. Europeans who were captured were sent to Changi Prison or to work as slave labour in Thailand, Malays and Indians suffered abuse and torture, while perhaps up to 50,000 (exact figures are unknown) ethnic Chinese were executed.
After the surrender of Japan, the island was declared a British crown colony once more when, in 1946, the Straits Settlements were dissolved. However, movement towards Singaporean independence was beginning.
In 1948 and 1951 there were elections to a limited Legislative Council and following this, in April 1955, Singapore held elections for a newly created Legislative Assembly. The Labour Front were the biggest party and David Marshall became the first Chief Minister.
In 1958, agreement was reached for Singapore to be granted partial independence and a fully elected 51-seat Legislative Assembly was created. In the first elections to this body in 1959, the People’s Action Party (PAP) won 43 seats and Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s first Prime Minister (a position he would retain until 1990).
After his election, Lee campaigned for Singapore and Malaya to unite as one nation and after much hesitation on Malaya’s part, Singapore became part of the newly-named Malaysia in 1963. However, the relationship quickly faltered and on August 9 1965, Singapore became an entirely independent country.
The End of the 20th Century
Many did not expect the tiny city-state of Singapore – with no natural resources, very little infrastructure and no real sense of self-identity – to survive, let alone flourish. That it began to do so was achieved through the government’s active seeking of foreign investment, its growing foreign trade, and a concentrated drive to establish new industries.
The PAP capitalised on the growing prosperity to cement its grip on power, so much so that between 1968 and 1981 it held every seat in the parliament. Throughout this period the country experienced healthy growth and became almost entirely industrialised.
In the 1980s, the government began a policy of rigorous state control of all media, which continues to this day. It was also towards the end of the 1980s that Singapore decided that its future lay in being an English-speaking nation, and all state schools began to use English as the language of instruction.
Singapore in the 1990s came to be regarded as an economic miracle. Life was still fairly rigidly controlled by the PAP, although there was some limited loosening up with regards to censorship; however, press freedom remained elusive.
The PAP remains in power in Singapore and actually increased their vote in the September 2015 election (the previous vote was in 2011). They hold 83 out of the 89 seats in the Singapore parliament, with the remaining six being held by the Workers’ Party (WP).
The global financial crisis of 2008 saw the government begin to restructure the country’s economy so that the importance of the financial services sector was lessened. As part of this change, Singapore has established itself as a leading destination in the lucrative international student market, and a new medical school and liberal arts college are set to open.
Singaporeans today still see the family unit as the basic tenet upon which society is constructed and yet young professionals are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain a balance between family, career and social life.
Many think that rampant consumerism is all there is to Singapore, but this is contradicted by an arts and cultural scene which is growing rapidly and of which many western cities would be envious. Similarly, the city’s history and multicultural heritage is understood and valued by its people and leaders as evidenced by the array of museums and galleries in the city dedicated to the art, culture and people of the region.
As has been the case since modern Singapore began at the beginning of the 19th century, the population continues to be made up of diverse groups of peoples, the 2011 census showing the total population to be 5,183,700, of whom 3,257,000 (or just under 63%) are Singapore citizens (23% of whom were born outside Singapore), the remaining 37% being permanent residents or foreign workers. The population is classified as being roughly 75% Chinese, 13% Malay, 9% Indian, the remaining 3% being ‘others’.
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