Short History of Singapore
Modern Singapore dates its nascency from the early morning of January 29, 1819, when a representative of the British East India Company, Thomas Stamford Raffles, stepped ashore at Singa Pura (Sanskrit for "Lion City"), as the island was then called, hoping to establish a British trading settlement on the southern part of the Malay Peninsula. There's clear evidence, however, of earlier Malay settlements, and also of an early Chinese presence, such as the 14th-century city of Temasek, which had an elegant and prosperous aristocracy. At various times Singapore fell under the sway of the Javanese and Thai empires. When Raffles arrived, the two sons of its previous sultan, who had died six years earlier, were in dispute over the throne. Raffles backed the claim of the elder brother, Tunku Hussein Mohamed Shah, and proclaimed him sultan. Offering to support the new sultanate with British military strength, Raffles persuaded him to grant the British a lease allowing them to establish a trading post on the island in return for an annual rent; within a week the negotiations were concluded. (A later treaty ceded the island outright to the British.) Within three years the fishing village, surrounded by swamps and jungle and populated only by tigers, 200 or so Malays, and a scattering of Chinese, had become a boomtown of 10,000 immigrants, administered by 74 British employees of the East India Company.
As Singapore grew, the British erected splendid public buildings, churches, and hotels, often using Indian convicts for labor. The Muslim, Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist communities—swelling rapidly from the influx of fortune-seeking settlers from Malaya (now Malaysia), India, and South China—built mosques, temples, and shrines. Magnificent houses for wealthy merchants sprang up, and the harbor was soon lined with godowns (warehouses) to hold all the goods passing through the port.
By the turn of the century, Singapore had become the entrepôt of the East, a mix of adventurers and "respectable middle classes." World War I hardly touched the island, although its defenses were strengthened to support the needs of the British navy, for which Singapore was an important base. When World War II broke out, the British were complacent, expecting that any attack would come from the sea and that they would be well prepared to meet it. But the Japanese landed to the north, in Malaya. The two British battleships that had been posted to Singapore were sunk, and Japanese land forces raced down the peninsula on bicycles.
In February 1942 the Japanese captured Singapore. A huge number of Allied civilians and military were sent to Changi Prison; others were marched off to prison camps in Malaysia or to work on the notorious "Death Railway," in Thailand. The three and a half years of occupation was a time of privation and fear; an estimated 100,000 people died. The Japanese surrendered August 21, 1945, and the Allied forces returned to Singapore. The security of the British Empire was, however, never again to be felt, and independence for British Southeast Asia was only a matter of time.
In 1957 the British agreed to the establishment of an elected 51-member legislative assembly in Singapore. General elections in 1959 gave an overwhelming majority—43 of 51 seats—to the People's Action Party (PAP), and a young Chinese lawyer named Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore's first prime minister. In 1963 Singapore became part of the Federation of Malaysia, along with the newly independent state of Malaysia.
Mainly due to Malays' anxiety over a possible takeover by the ethnic Chinese, the federation broke up two years later, and Singapore became an independent sovereign state. The electorate supported Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP time and again. In 1990 Lee resigned after 31 years as prime minister, though as a senior minister he maintains his strong grip. His firm leadership of the party, his social and economic legislation, and his suppression of criticism led to his reputation as a (usually) benevolent dictator; yet Singaporeans recognize that his firm control had much to do with the republic's economic success and high standard of living. Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong, officially took over from Lee's handpicked successor, Goh Chok Tong, as prime minister on August 12, 2004. His style of governing seems to reveal a determination to distance himself from his father's style of leadership.
Free Fodor's Newsletter
Subscribe today for weekly travel inspiration, tips, and special offers.
Fodor's Trip Planning Ideas
- Great American Vacation: Find Your Next U.S. Trip with Fodor's
- 80 Degrees: Fodor's Helps You Find Your Best Beach Vacation Spots
- Go List: Fodor's Top 25 Places to Go in 2013
- Hotel Awards 2012: Fodor's 100 Top Hotels
- Weekend Getaways: Fodor's Recommends the Best Weekend Escapes in the US
- Best of Europe: Fodor's Picks the Best Places to Visit in Europe
- ASAP Tickets Sale! Flights to Singapore From 757 R/T ASAPTickets.com
- Visit Singapore for Less: Hotels Fr $187+/Nt Travelocity
- Singapore Savings! Book at The Fullerton Bay Fr $557+/Nt Expedia
- Top Vacation Sale! 14 Nts + Air as Low as $4,396 Travelocity
- See Asia & More: 13 Nts Aboard Princess Cruises Fr $1,639 Expedia