Having celebrated 50 years of independence in 2015, the Lion City is the quintessential success story. In less than an average human lifespan, Asia's Little Red Dot has metamorphosed from a dusty, developing nation into one of the world's most stable, safe and prosperous countries. The story of Singapore is one of vision, planning and unrelenting determination.
Pretty much every museum you'll see in Singapore is devoted to post-colonial history, simply because there is not a great deal of undisputed pre-colonial history. Malay legend has it that long ago a Sumatran prince visiting the island of Temasek saw a strange animal he believed to be a lion. The good omen prompted the prince to found a city on the spot of the sighting. He called it Singapura (Lion City).
Chinese traders en route to India had plied the waters around what is now Singapore from at least the 5th century AD, though the records of Chinese sailors as early as the 3rd century refer to an island called Pu Luo Chung, which may have been Singapore, while others claim there was a settlement in the 2nd century.
Between the 7th and 10th centuries, Srivijaya, a seafaring Buddhist kingdom centred on Palembang in Sumatra, held sway over the Strait of Malacca (now Melaka). Raids by rival kingdoms and the arrival of Islam brought the eclipse of Srivijaya 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 Srivijaya.
The Portuguese took Melaka in 1511, sparking off a wave of colonialism. The equally ambitious 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 own 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 Sir Stamford Raffles, lieutenant-governor of Java.
The Raffles Era
For someone who spent a limited amount of time in Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles had an extraordinary influence on its development. His name appears everywhere in the modern city – Raffles Pl in the CBD, Stamford Rd, Raffles Hotel, the Raffles City shopping mall, the prestigious Raffles Institution (where Lee Kuan Yew went to school) – but his impact extends far beyond civic commemoration.
The streets you walk along in the city centre still largely follow the original plans Raffles drew. The ethnic districts still evident today, particularly in the case of Little India, were demarcated by him. Even the classic shophouse design – built of brick, with a continuous covered verandah known as a 'five-foot way' and a central courtyard for light, ventilation and water collection – has been attributed to him. More importantly, Singapore's very existence as one of the world's great ports is a direct consequence of Raffles' vision of creating a British-controlled entrepôt to counter Dutch power in the region.
When Raffles 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.
Along with Penang and Melaka, Singapore formed a triumvirate of powerful trading stations known as the Straits Settlements, which were controlled by the East India Company in Calcutta but administered from Singapore.
Raffles had hit upon the brilliant idea of turning a sparsely populated, tiger-infested malarial swamp with few natural resources into an economic powerhouse by luring in the ambitious and allowing them to unleash their entrepreneurial zeal. While it was to be many decades before Singapore's somewhat anarchic social conditions were brought under control, the essential Rafflesian spirit still underpins the city's tireless drive to succeed.
Colonisation & Occupation
Singapore Under the British
Raffles' first and second visits to Singapore in 1819 were brief and he left instructions and operational authority with Colonel William Farquhar, former Resident (the chief British representative) in Melaka. When Raffles returned three years later, he found the colony thriving but chaotic.
It was then that he drew up his town plan, which remains today, levelling one hill to form a new commercial district (now Raffles Pl) and erecting government buildings around another prominence called Forbidden Hill (now called Fort Canning Hill).
His plan also embraced the colonial practice, still in evidence, of administering the population according to neat racial categories. The city's trades, races and dialect groups were divided into zones: Europeans were granted land to the northeast of the government offices (today's Colonial District), though many soon moved out to sequestered garden estates in the western suburbs. The Chinese predominated around the mouth and the area southwest of the Singapore River, though many Indians lived there too (hence the large Hindu temple on South Bridge Rd). Hindu Indians were, and still are, largely resident 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. In time, of course, these zones became less well defined, as people decanted into other parts of the island.
Despite its wealth, the colony was a dissolute place, beset by crime, clan violence, appalling sanitation, opium addiction, rats, mosquitoes and tigers. Life for the majority was extremely harsh; the Chinatown Heritage Centre is probably the best place to appreciate just how harsh.
Raffles sought to cooperate with, and officially register, the various kongsi – clan organisations for mutual assistance, known variously as ritual brotherhoods, secret societies, triads and heaven-man-earth societies. (Many of them had their headquarters on Club St, and a couple still hold out against the area's rapid gentrification.) 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 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 often married local women, eventually spawning a new, hybrid culture now known in Singapore as Peranakan.
Despite a massive fall in rubber prices in 1920, prosperity continued, immigration soared and millionaires were made almost overnight. In the 1930s and early '40s, 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.
Singapore Under the Japanese
When General Yamashita Tomoyuki pushed his thinly stretched army into Singapore on 15 February 1942, it began a period Singapore regards as the blackest of its history. For the British, who had set up a naval base near the city in the 1920s, surrender was sudden and humiliating – and some historians have pinpointed the fall of Singapore as the moment when the myth of British impregnability was blown apart and the empire began its final decline.
The impact of the Japanese occupation on the collective political and social memory of Singapore cannot be underestimated, and it has partly inspired Singapore's modern preoccupation with security.
Japanese rule was harsh. 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, while others were herded up to Siam (Thailand) to work on the horrific Death Railway.
The Japanese also launched Operation Sook Ching to eliminate Chinese opposition. Chinese Singaporeans were driven out of their homes, 'screened', then either given a 'chop' (a mark on the forehead meaning they had been cleared for release) or driven away to be imprisoned or executed (there's a memorial to one massacre at Changi Beach). Estimates of the number of Chinese killed vary – some sources put the number at 6000, others at more than 45,000.
The Japanese renamed the island 'Syonan' (Light of the South), changed signs into Japanese, put clocks forward to Tokyo time and introduced a Japanese currency (known by contemptuous locals as 'banana money').
The war ended suddenly with Japan's surrender on 14 August 1945, and Singapore was passed back into British control. While the returning British troops were welcomed, the occupation had eroded the innate trust in the empire's protective embrace. New political forces were at work and the road to independence was paved.
The Lee Dynasty
If one person can be considered responsible for the position Singapore finds itself in today, it is Lee Kuan Yew.
Born in 1923, this third-generation Straits-born Chinese was named Harry Lee, and brought up to be, in his own words, 'the equal of any Englishman'. His education at the elite Raffles Institution and Cambridge University equipped him well to deal with both colonial power and political opposition when Singapore took control of its own destiny in the 1960s.
The early years were not easy. Race riots in 1964 and ejection from the Malay Federation in 1965 made Lee's task even harder. Lee used tax incentives and strict new labour laws to attract foreign investment. This, combined with huge resources poured into developing an English-language education system that churned out a competent workforce, saw Singapore's economy rapidly industrialise.
Under Lee's rigidly paternal control, his People's Action Party (PAP) also set about eliminating any viable political opposition, banning critical publications and moulding the city into a disciplined, functional society built along Confucian ideals, which value the maintenance of hierarchy and social order above all things.
Lee was successful at containing what he evidently saw as the anarchic tendencies of Singapore's citizens, inspiring ever more ambitious attempts at social engineering. For example, a (now defunct) matchmaking club was established to pair off suitable couples – one of the dating clubs was restricted to graduates.
Lee's rapid industrialisation filled government coffers and enabled the PAP to pursue massive infrastructure, defence, health, education, pension and housing schemes, giving Singaporeans a level of prosperity and security that remains the envy of many countries in the region and around the world.
Housing and urban renovation, in particular, have been key to the PAP's success. By the mid-1990s, Singapore had achieved the world's highest rate of home ownership.
Despite resigning as prime minister in 1990 after 31 years in the job, and handing over to the more avuncular but no less determined Goh Chok Tong, Lee still kept an eye on proceedings and his comments on various issues frequently flag future government policy.
'Even from my sickbed,' said Lee in 1988, 'even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is wrong, I'll get up.'
Lee Kuan Yew passed away at the Singapore General Hospital on 23 March 2015, after being admitted the previous month for severe pneumonia. A week-long period of national mourning was declared. Lee lay in state at Parliament House for four days to allow Singaporeans to pay their respects. From the first day, the queues were so long that the opening hours were extended to round-the-clock, and even then wait times stretched to eight hours. Over 445,000 filed past Mr Lee, and another 100,000 lined the streets in the pouring rain for his final journey – to his funeral service.
Recent Past & Impending Future
Lee Kuan Yew's son, Lee Hsien Loong, who was deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister under Goh Chok Tong, took over the top job unopposed in 2004.
The challenges he has faced to date have been as great as those faced by his father, among them the Asian financial crisis starting in 1997, the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the global financial crisis of 2007, all of which had a major impact on the country's economy and its sense of vulnerability to forces beyond its control. These factors, coupled with migration of its manufacturing base to cheaper competitors such as Vietnam and China, have forced the government to embark on a radical makeover of the country in an attempt to ensure its success extends into the future.
Challenges have also presented themselves in the form of growing opposition to the ruling PAP. While the party won the expected majority in a landslide victory in 2006, its actual votes fell by 8.69%.
In the lead-up to the 2011 election, the political landscape reflected the expected appetite for change. The election had the highest proportion of contested seats (94.3%) since Singapore achieved its independence in 1965. Local media, often accused of being mouthpieces of the government, appeared to give more even coverage to the PAP and opposition parties. Social media, once banned in campaigning, played a huge part in the dissemination of information. Even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong participated in an online chat (his first). Attendances at opposition rallies were off the charts.
The election results were telling. The PAP lost a further 6.46% of the electorate, winning 60.14% of the votes and 81 out of 87 seats. The biggest gains went to the Workers' Party, with a political agenda that focused on the everyday concerns of Singaporeans, from wages, the cost of living and healthcare, to housing affordability, public transport and the disproportionately high salaries of ministers. The election would prove to be a sobering wake-up call for the PAP. Post-election, a review of ministerial salaries was immediately mooted, and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew both tendered their resignations.
The 2015 elections were the most fiercely contested yet; for the first time in history the opposition parties contested every seat. Hot topics included the failing economy, overcrowded and 'worsening' public transport, the high cost of living and immigration issues. Mr Lee called the election a year early, possibly in the hope of capitalising on the national pride stirred up during the nation’s 50th birthday celebrations. This also coincided with the death of Singapore’s founding father, and Mr Lee’s own father, Lee Kuan Yew, in March. The election was a landslide win for the PAP, who gained 70% of the votes. Mr Lee now has until 2020 to deal with the nation’s concerns before the ballot boxes open again.