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Singapore City


The recent past

One day, son, all this will be yours.

In 2004, Lee Hsien Loong - Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's deputy prime minister and minister for defence, as well as Lee Kuan Yew's son - took over the top job, unopposed. Goh took over Lee Snr's role of senior minister, while the founder of the nation now bears the title of Minister Mentor.

Lee Jr faces challenges as great as those his father dealt with. Racial tensions still bubble under the surface, despite all the policies and good will tackling them. China looms large on the horizon, and the challenge is to find a role that will discourage the new economic giant from eating Singapore for breakfast. The younger generation, which has grown up in times of plenty, doesn't feel so tied to the country and sees greater opportunities overseas. Many of the brightest have left, although strong family ties and appeals to patriotism work hard to slow the brain drain.

A shrewd political alliance with the US, allowing US forces to base themselves on the island, and now a Free Trade Agreement, has caused anti-US terrorists to look askance at this island once dismissed as a 'little red dot' for its left-wing leanings. A home-grown threat was contained after a video detailing a planned attack on an MRT station was apparently found in the bombed-out home of an Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan.

Finally, the younger Lee is working to gain popular support. His father and Goh are both hard acts to follow - one a father to the nation, the other a friendly uncle. Lee Hsien Loong's former reputation for being aloof is changing, and he is developing a more approachable persona.

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From the beginning

Malay legend has it that long ago, a Sumatran prince visiting the island of Temasek saw a strange animal that was identified to him as a lion. The good omen prompted the prince to found a city on the spot of the sighting. He called it Singapura (Lion City).

From the arrival in 1819 of Stamford Raffles - officially declared Singapore's founder in the 1970s in order to 'neutrally' settle rival claims by local Malays and Chinese - to the present, Singapore's past has been continually moulded to fit political and economic demands. Nevertheless, beneath the serene surface of gentrified colonial-era buildings lies an intriguing tale of the rise and fall of local empires, European colonial 'great games' and the enduring legacy of 19th-century British rule.

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Early empires

Chinese traders en route to India had plied the waters around what is now Singapore from at least the 5th century AD. Some sources claim that in 1292 Marco Polo visited a flourishing city where Singapore now stands (though the Venetian's only sure report is of the city of Malayu - now called Jambi - on Sumatra).

What is certain, however, is that Singapore was not the first of the great entrepĂ´t cities in the region. By the 7th century, Sriwijaya, a seafaring Buddhist kingdom centred on Palembang in Sumatra, held sway over the Strait of Malacca (now Melaka); by the 10th century it dominated the Malay peninsula as well. At the peak of Sriwijaya's power, Singapore was at most a small trading outpost.

Raids by rival kingdoms and the arrival of Islam spelled the eclipse of Sriwijaya by the 13th century. Based mainly on the thriving pirate trade, the sultanate of Melaka quickly acquired the commercial power that was once wielded by Sriwijaya. It was a cosmopolitan, free-port emporium that valued money above any notions of cultural imperialism.

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Colonial great games

The Portuguese took Melaka in 1511, while the equally ardent Dutch founded Batavia (now Jakarta) to undermine Melaka's position, finally wresting the city from their European competitors in 1641. In the late 18th century, the British began looking for a harbour in the Strait of Melaka to secure lines of trade between China, the Malay world and their interests in India. Renewed war in Europe led, in 1795, to the French annexation of Holland which prompted the British to seize Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia, including Melaka.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the British agreed to restore Dutch possessions in 1818, but there were those who were bitterly disappointed at the failure of the dream of British imperial expansion in Southeast Asia. One such figure was Stamford Raffles, lieutenant governor of Java. Raffles soon procured permission to found a station to secure British trade routes in the region and was instructed to negotiate with the sultan of nearby Johor for land.

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Raffles arrives

When Stamford Raffles, lieutenant governor of Java, landed at Singapore in early 1819, the empire of Johor was divided. When the old sultan had died in 1812, his younger son's accession to power had been engineered while an elder son, Hussein, was away. The Dutch had a treaty with the young sultan, but Raffles threw his support behind Hussein, proclaiming him sultan and installing him in residence in Singapore.

In Raffles' plans the sultan wielded no actual power but he did serve to legitimise British claims on the island. Raffles also signed a treaty with the more eminent temenggong (senior judge) of Johor and set him up with an estate on the Singapore River. Thus, Raffles acquired the use of Singapore in exchange for modest annual allowances to Sultan Hussein and the temenggong. This exchange ended with a cash buyout of the pair in 1824 and the transfer of Singapore's ownership to Britain's East India Company.

The Dutch were unimpressed, but in an 1824 Anglo-Dutch treaty that carved up spheres of influence in Asia, Singapore remained the property of Britain. In 1826 Singapore, Penang and Melaka became part of the Straits Settlements, controlled by the East India Company in Calcutta but administered from Singapore.

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The city emerges

Stamford Raffles, lieutenant governor of Java, first and second visits to Singapore in 1819 were brief, and he left instructions and operational authority with Colonel William Farquhar, formerly the Resident (chief British representative) in Melaka, now Resident of Singapore. But, three years later, when Raffles returned to run the then-thriving colony he found his ambitious plans were not being carried out.

Raffles initiated a town plan that included levelling one hill to form a new commercial district (now Raffles Pl) and erecting government buildings around another, Forbidden Hill (now Fort Canning Hill). The plan also embraced the colonial practice, still vaguely operative in Singapore today, of administering the population according to neat racial categories. The city's trades, races and dialect groups were divided into kampongs (villages): Europeans were granted land to the northeast of the government offices, though many soon moved out to sequestered garden estates in the western suburbs; Chinese, who included Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Teochew and Straits-born, predominated around the mouth of the Singapore River; Indians (Hindu) were centred in Kampong Kapor and Serangoon Rd; Gujarati and other Muslim merchants were housed in the Arab St area; Tamil Muslim traders and small businesses operated in the Market St area; and the Malay population mainly lived on the swampy northern fringes of the city, where the Sultan Mosque was also located.


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How the east was won

Recognising the need for cooperation with Chinese communities, Stamford Raffles, lieutenant governor of Java, also sought registration of the kongsi (clan organisations for mutual assistance, known variously as ritual brotherhoods, secret societies, triads and heaven-man-earth societies). Labour and dialect-based kongsi would become increasingly important to Singapore's success in the 19th century, as overseas demand for Chinese-harvested products such as pepper, tin and rubber - all routed through Singapore from the Malay peninsula - grew enormously. Singapore's access to kongsi-based economies in the region, however, depended largely on revenues from an East India Company product that came from India and was bound for China - opium.

Farquhar had established Singapore's first opium farm for domestic consumption, and by the 1830s excise and sales revenues of opium accounted for nearly half the administration's income, a situation that continued for a century after Raffles' arrival. But the British Empire (which has been called the world's first major drug cartel) produced more than Chinese opium addicts; it also fostered the Western-oriented outlook of Straits-born Chinese.

In the 19th century, women were rarely permitted to leave China; thus, Chinese men who headed for the Straits Settlements (after 1867, the Crown Colony) of Singapore were likely to marry Malay women. These creole Baba Chinese (the term 'Peranakan' is now preferred in Singapore) found an identity in the Union Jack, British law and citizenship. The British could count on those Peranakan with capital and a local family to stay in Singapore, while other traders were considered to be less reliable.

The authorities needed all the help they could get, for while revenues and Chinese labourers poured in until the early 1930s, Singapore was continually plagued by bad sanitation, water-supply problems, man-eating tigers and piracy.

Despite a massive fall in rubber prices in 1920, the ensuing decade saw more boom times. Immigration soared and millionaires were made overnight. In the 1930s and early 1940s, politics dominated the intellectual scene. Indians looked to the subcontinent for signs of the end of colonial rule, while Kuomintang (Nationalist) and Communist Party struggles in the disintegrating Republic of China attracted passionate attention. Opposition to Japan's invasions of China in 1931 and 1937 was near universal in Singapore.

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Japanese rule

Singaporean Chinese were to pay a heavy price for opposing Japanese imperialism when General Yamashita Tomoyuki pushed his thinly stretched army into Singapore on 15 February 1942. For the British, who had set up a naval base near the city in the 1920s, surrender was sudden and humiliating.

Blame for the loss of Singapore fell on everyone from British prime minister Winston Churchill, who failed to divert sufficient forces from the war in Europe to defend Singapore, to squabbling British commanders and the wholesale desertion of Australian troops under the divisive command.

Japanese rule was harsh in Singapore, which was renamed 'Syonan' (Light of the South). Yamashita had the Europeans and Allied POWs herded onto the Padang; from there they were marched away for internment. Many of them were taken to the infamous Changi prison. Chinese Communists and intellectuals, however, were executed and Malays and Indians were also subject to systematic abuse. As the war progressed, inflation skyrocketed. Food, medicines and other essentials became in short supply, so much so that near the end of the war, people were dying of malnutrition and disease.

The war ended suddenly with Japan's surrender on 14 August 1945, and Singapore was passed back into British control.

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Post-war alienation

The British were welcomed back to Singapore after the war, but their right (and ability) to rule was now in question. Plans for limited self-government and a Malayan Union were drawn up, uniting the peninsular states of British Malaya with Crown possessions in Borneo. Singapore was excluded, largely because of Malay fears of Chinese Singapore's dominance.

Singapore's destitute state provided support for the Malayan Communist Party, whose mainly Chinese freedom fighters had emerged as heroes of the war. The Communist General Labour Union also had a huge following, and in 1946 and 1947 Singapore was crippled by strikes.

The island moved slowly towards self-government. The socialist Malayan Democratic Union was the first real political party, but it boycotted Singapore's first elections in 1947. After early successes, the Communists realised they were not going to gain power under the colonial government's political agenda and began a campaign of armed struggle in Malaya. In response, British authorities declared the Malayan Emergency in 1948. The Communists were outlawed and a bitter guerrilla war was waged on the peninsula for 12 years. There was no fighting in Singapore, but left-wing politics languished under the political repression of Emergency regulations.

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Singapore's Malaysian split

By the early 1950s the Communist threat had waned and left-wing activity was again on the upswing, with student and union movements at the forefront of the political activity. One of the rising stars of this era was Lee Kuan Yew. The socialist People's Action Party (PAP) was founded in 1954, with Lee as secretary-general. A shrewd politician, Lee appealed for support to both the emerging British-educated elite and to radicalistic passions. The party included a Communist faction and had an ambitious post-Raffles plan of its own: strong state intervention to industrialise Singapore's economy.

Under arrangements for internal self-government, PAP won a majority of seats in the new Legislative Assembly in 1959, and Lee Kuan Yew became the first Singaporean to hold the title of prime minister, which he held when Singapore joined the Malay Federation in the early 1960s. It lasted only two years and in 1965 Singapore was booted out of the federation and left to fend for itself as the Republic of Singapore. Despite Lee Kuan Yew's public tears and real fears at the messy divorce, both peninsular Malays and Singapore's Chinese were mostly relieved that the marriage of convenience was over.

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Building the new Singapore

Making the most of one-party rule, the PAP, under Lee's paternal control, began moulding its multiracial citizens and fragile state into a viable entity. Industrialisation paid off, and ambitious infrastructure, defence, health, education, pension and housing schemes were pursued. Housing and urban renovation, in particular, have been the keys to the PAP's success (by the mid-1990s, the city-state had the world's highest rate of home ownership).

Singapore's leaders sought order and progress in the regulation of social behaviour and identity. This involved banning chewing gum and smoking in public (enforced with fines), installing cameras and automatic locks in lifts to catch public urination, setting up state-sponsored matchmaking venues, and offering financial incentives to well-educated (mostly Chinese) women to have more children.

Under Lee, high economic growth rates supported political stability, which was further ensured by exiling or jailing dissidents, banning critical publications and controlling public speech and the media. Though this has been relaxed slightly in recent years, few dare to voice serious challenges to the government.

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