History of Singapore

History of Singapore - Contents

Written accounts of the early history of Singapore are sketchy and the names used to refer to the country are varied.

Early Names

A Chinese account of the third century refers to Singapore as Puluozhong, translating the Malay words Pulau Ujong, ie. “island at the end” of the peninsula. The Javanese Nagarakretagama1 of 1365 identified a settlement called Temasek, ie. “Water Town”, on Singapore island. A Chinese trader Wang Dayuan, who visited Singapore around 1330 referred to this settlement as Danmaxi, in reporting that there were also some Chinese found on the island. The Sejarah Melayu or Malay Annals has the most colorful and vivid account of how Singapore got its present name. As the story goes, Sang Nila Utama (or Sri Tri Buana as he was more popularly known), ruler of Palembang (in present day Indonesia), landed at Temasek one day while seeking shelter from a storm. Sighting an animal he took to be a lion, he decided to establish a settlement which he named Singapura, i.e. “Lion City”. The island became commonly known as Singapura by the end of the 14th century.

Early History

During the 14th century, 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, Singapore was defeated in one Majapahit attack. Later, a prince of Palembang, Iskandar Shah, also known as Parameswara, killed the local chieftain and installed himself as the island’s new ruler. But 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. By the early 19th century2, Singapore was under the rule of the Sultan of Johor, who was based in the Riau-Lingga archipelago. One of his senior ministers, the Temenggong, administered Johor and Singapura. When the British East India Company founded their settlement in early 1819, through an agreement with Sultan Hussein Shah and the Temenggong, Singapore had around 1,000 indigenous inhabitants, consisting of Malays as well as the orang laut, i.e. sea nomads. These people were clustered around the Singapore River, Kallang River, Telok Blangah, and along the Johor Straits. There were also some Chinese traders and gambier planters in the interior.

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 Stamford Raffles, Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen, to establish a trading station at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. On 29 January 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. On 6 February 1819, a formal treaty was concluded with Sultan Hussein of Johor and the Temenggong, the de jure and de facto rulers of Singapore respectively. Singapore proved to be a prized settlement. 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 formalized 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 Singapore. The second treaty was made with Sultan Hussein and Temenggong Abdu’r Rahman in August, by which the two owners ceded the island outright 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 1April 1867, the Straits Settlements became a Crown Colony under the jurisdiction ofthe Colonial Office in London. With the advent of the steamship in the mid-1860s and the opening of the Suez Canalin 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 per cent respectively; and others, including the Europeans, 8.5per cent.

The peace and prosperity ended when Japanese aircraft bombed the sleeping city in the early hours of 8 December 1941. Singapore fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, and was renamed Syonan (Light of the South). It remained under Japanese occupation for three-and-a-half years.

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 was dissolved. On 1 April 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 20 March 1948. When the Communist Party of Malaya 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 Labour 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 6 April 1955, with a coalition government made up of his own Labour Front, the United Malays National Organisation and the Malayan Chinese Association. Marshall resigned on 6 June 1956, after the breakdown of constitutional talks in London on attaining full internal self-government. Lim Yew Hock, Marshall’s deputy and Minister for Labour, 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 28 May 1958, the Constitutional Agreement was signed in London. Self-government was attained 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 per cent 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 organisations, 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, defence and internal security of Singapore.

The Malaysia Proposal

On 27 May 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 defence, foreign affairs and internal security, but local autonomy in matters pertaining to education and labour. A referendum on the terms of the merger held in Singapore on 1 September 1962 showed the people’s overwhelming support for the PAP’s plan to go ahead with the merger. Malaysia was formed on 16 September 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. Singapore was separated from the rest of Malaysia on 9 August 1965, and became a sovereign, democratic and independent nation. Independent Singapore was admitted to the United Nations on 21 September 1965, and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations on 15 October 1965. On 22 December 1965, it became a republic, with Yusof bin Ishak as the republic’s first President. Thereafter commenced Singapore’s struggle to survive and prosper on its own. It also had to create a sense of national identity and consciousness among a disparate population of immigrants.Singapore’s strategy for survival and development was essentially to take advantage of its strategic location and the favourable world economy.

Coming of Age

A massive industrialisation programme 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 programme 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 Defence 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. The one-party Parliament that emerged from the 1968 general election became the pattern, with the PAP winning all seats in 1972, 1976 and 1980. In the 1984 and 1988 general elections, the PAP won all but two seats and one seat respectively.

Passing of the Torch

On 28 November 1990, a new chapter opened in Singapore’s modern history. Goh Chok Tong became the second Prime Minister of Singapore when he took over the office from Lee Kuan Yew, who stepped down after having been Prime Minister since 1959. The PAP, however, continued its winning ways at the polls, capturing all but four seats in the 1991 general election. In the 1997 general election, the PAP won 81 of the 83 seats in Parliament. On 28 August 1993, Singapore’s first Presidential Election was held. Former Deputy Prime Minister and NTUC secretary general Ong Teng Cheong beat ex-accountant general Chua Kim Yeow to become the Republic’s first Elected President. He was succeeded by Mr S R Nathan who won on a walkover after two candidates had failed to meet the criteria for contest. Mr Nathan was sworn in as the Republic’s second Elected President on 1 September 1999.

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