This was my second visit to Singapore, and since I had seen most of the major tourist attractions the first time, I was able to explore the history and culture of the city in a much deeper fashion this time. This tiny island is a fascinating place.
Given its location on the straits that connect the Indian and Pacific Oceans, it is no surprise that Singapore has been a vital trading post for most of the past several centuries. Malay, Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Javanese traders all plied the waters around the island, giving Singapore a cosmopolitan past that is reflected in its multicultural present. Singapore was arguably the most important port in Southeast Asia until the Portuguese captured Malaka, on the southwest coast of modern-day Malaysia, in 1511. Malaka quickly overtook Singapore in importance, and in 1613 the Portuguese burned the settlement on the Singapore River, relegating the island to obscurity for over 200 years.
Stamford Raffles’ arrival on the island in 1819 changed everything. Raffles, a highly successful British colonial official, saw great potential in what had become a sleepy backwater. Today, his impact on the city is noticeable almost everywhere you go – One Raffles Place is one of the tallest buildings in the downtown area, there is a subway stop called Raffles Place, there is a Stamford Road, and one of the most famous hotels in the city is called the Raffles Hotel. The plaque at the base of the statue commemorating his arrival says it all: “On this historic site Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles first landed in Singapore on 28th January, 1819, and with genius and perception changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis.” Indeed.
The British government was certainly willing to follow the vision of Raffles. In 1824 the Dutch conceded Singapore to the British Empire, and it quickly became the most important port in the East for the empire on which “the sun never set”. It was during the 19th century that the groundwork for Singapore’s multicultural future was laid. For a time the island was managed from British India, so many Indians, especially Tamils, were encouraged to emigrate to the island to aid its development. The Chinese, mainly the Hokkien and Teochew ethnicities from Southeastern China, also came, usually to act as “coolies”, handling the goods now coming through the bustling port. Malays were also a major part of the population, unsurprising given the proximity of the Malay peninsula. The influence of these groups is easy to spot in modern Singapore: most signs in the subway system are in English, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Malay; and food (which I will discuss in my next post) from all three regions is popular everywhere.
By the time World War II began, Singapore had become a Crown Colony that featured an enormous naval base and supposedly impenetrable defenses. However, the Japanese, in their drive to subjugate all of Asia, raced through the Malay Peninsula and captured Singapore in February of 1942, taking over 100,000 Commonwealth troops prisoner and delivering a crushing blow to the morale of the British leadership in the process. For the remainder of the war, a brutal Japanese occupation ruled the island.
Following the war, nationalism and anti-colonial sentiments began to flourish, thanks to the utter failure of the British to protect the island. A series of partially-independent governments were created, and in 1963 Singapore actually became part of Malaysia. Racial tensions, however, were extremely high, and the volatile situation continued until 1965, when the fully independent Republic of Singapore was created.
Since then, the country has gone on an incredible tear of economic growth, largely thanks to the policies of Lee Kuan Yew, the legendary Prime Minister who ruled for three decades and oversaw the transformation of Singapore from a rather poor, developing country to one of the richest and most high-tech places on earth.
This transformation was very noticeable at the excellent Asian Civilisation Museum, which is where I learned much of this information. Located just across the river from the towering Financial District, you could look out the windows at the stunning, modern developments of the city, while simultaneously reading about its past. This amazing growth is recognized in other parts of the city as well. At one point on the walkway around Marina Bay sits a wonderfully informative sign explaining this: Most of the land around the marina has actually been reclaimed from the sea. In 1965, the area of the island was 582 square kilometers, today it is 710. The ground that the towers of commerce, the Singapore Flyer, and the stunning Marina Bay Sands resort all sit on used to be open ocean. Amazing.
With all of these impressive accomplishments already in hand, one could conceivably forgive Singapore for taking a bit of a rest. In fact, there are several projects underway that show that the country is plowing ahead in its quest for utmost modernity: the already expansive and efficient subway system (MRT) is undergoing major expansion; the area behind the Sands is being developed into a huge city park; and the soon-to-be-completed Marina Bay Financial Center, home to top-shelf office space and what must surely be some of the most expensive condos in the world, should ensure that Singapore will hold on to its status as a major tourist destination and important spoke in the global financial system. All in all, pretty impressive for a place that hasn’t even been an independent country for 50 years.