A Brief History of Singapore

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Podcast Transcript

Located at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, one of the most strategically important points on Earth is the nation of Singapore.

Singapore is unlike most other countries in the world for a host of reasons, including how it was created and the fact that it is one of the few remaining city-states. 

Since its founding as an independent country, they have experienced one of the greatest economic success stories in history and a host of problems that are unique to the country.

Learn more about Singapore and its unique history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The history of Singapore goes back at least 2000 years. There are references in 3rd-century Chinese texts to a place called Pu Luo Chung, an island at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula. 

The might even be a reference to Singapore in an ancient Greek text. The astronomer Ptolemy referenced an island known as Sabana, which sat at the end of the Golden Chersonese, which is believed to be a reference to the Malay Peninsula.

The island was known as “Temasek” in the local Javanese language, which means “sea town.” It was controlled by the Srivijaya Empire for centuries, with a brief period of control by the Chola Empire from Southern India around 1,000 years ago.

According to legend, a prince from Palembang in modern-day Sumatra, Indonesia, landed on the island on a hunting trip and saw a creature he thought was a lion. He thought it auspicious, so he founded a settlement on the island known as Singapura. Singapura means “Lion City” in Sanskrit.

Given its strategic location on the Strait of Malacca, by the 13th century, Singapura had become an important port and trading city.

Singapura is believed to be the first major Chinese settlement outside of China. 

After the fall of the Srivijaya Empire, Singapura was fought over by various successor states in the region, and by the 15th century, when the Portuguese arrived, the settlement was already mostly in ruins. 

When the Portuguese attacked the Sultanate of Malacca in 1511, the sultan fled south and established a new Sultanate in Johor, just across the narrow waters from Singapura and took control of the island.. In 1613, the Portuguese came back and destroyed the remaining settlements.

Over the next several centuries, Singapore was nothing more than a relatively unimportant fishing village. European powers, in particular the Portuguese and Dutch, began colonizing the areas around Singapore that today are the countries of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Modern Singapore only dates back to the early 19th century. The British were looking for a trading port that they could use to protect British shipping between India and China. In 1818, they sent the lieutenant governor of the British colony of Bencoolen on the Island of Sumatra, Sir Stamford Raffles, to find a suitable port.

He found that place on the island of Singapore, which turned out to be the perfect location. It had a deep harbor, and it had the perfect strategic location on the Strait of Malacca.

On February 6, 1819, the British signed the Treaty of Singapore with the Sultan of Johor to allow them to establish a trading post. 

At the time of Singapore’s modern founding, the island had approximately 1,000 inhabitants, with one major settlement of about 150 people. 

After the founding of British Singapore, the settlement quickly grew, and it became the main British trading port in the region. Within two years of its founding, Singapore already had a population of 5,000 people, and three years after that, it hit 10,000.

Traders and workers flocked to Singapore from all over the region, and it became a multiethnic mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arab, and Europeans. 

By 1850, Singapore had a population of 60,000, with a Chinese majority. Due to the rapid increase in population, the city had become lawless, with only 12 police officers serving the entire settlement. Organized crime was rampant, with opium dens, gambling, and prostitution out in the open.

In 1867, Singapore became its own colony. Until this point, they had been controlled by administrators in India. 

In 1871, Singapore conducted its first real census and found that it had a population of 97,111.

Singapore continued to grow rapidly throughout the early 20th century. By 1931, the last census taken before the war, the population had reached 557,745.

The Second World War saw profound changes in Singapore. Japanese forces landed in Northern Malaysia simultaneously with their invasion of Pearl Harbor and marched south toward Singapore. 

British resistance was poor, and on February 15, 1942, 130,000 British forces, representing many nationalities, surrendered. It was the biggest defeat in British history, and the Battle of Singapore and its subsequent occupation is worthy of its own future episode. 

After the war, Singapore had to rebuild much of its destroyed infrastructure, and the population again grew rapidly. 

As in every British colony after the war, decolonization was being discussed, and, as with most colonies, in Singapore, it was a matter of when not if.

Gradual local control was given to Singaporeans. In 1959, full self-governance was granted, and the first elections to the legislative assembly were held. 

The People’s Action Party was won by a landslide, and a 36-year-old Cambridge-educated attorney named Lee Kuan Yew was elected the first Prime Minister of Singapore. 

Singapore, despite holding elections, was still not formally independent. Many Singaporeans felt that the future of Singapore lay with the newly independent country of Malaya to the north, with whom they had strong historical and geographic ties. 

In 1963, the Federation of Malaysia was formed, bringing together Malaya on the Malay Peninsula, Saba, and Sarawak on the island of Borneo, and Singapore. 

However, this union didn’t last very long.

Singapore, at this point, had a population of close to 1.7 million people. It had a Chinese majority with a Malay minority. The rest of Malaysia had a Malay majority with a Chinese minority. 

The central Malaysian government adopted policies that benefited ethnic Malays to the detriment of ethnic Chinese. 

In 1964, race riots took place in Singapore, and other economic problems developed as Singapore refused to provide loans to Saba and Sarawak, and Singapore was denied economic access to part of Malaysia. 

Eventually, it was agreed that the union wasn’t working, and after secret negotiations took place, on August 9, 1965, the parliament of Malaysia voted unanimously to expel Singapore from the federation.

I should make note of just how rare something like this is. Most countries will go to war to prevent areas from splitting away and becoming independent. You never see countries expelling a province, but that was exactly what happened with Singapore.

After being expelled from Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew announced the Republic of Singapore. 

The new nation of Singapore faced a large number of problems. Singapore of 1965 was not the Singapore of today.

For starters, the country had no hinterland. There was no timber, mining, and very little in the way of agriculture. Unemployment in Singapore was over 10%. Singapore was one of the poorest countries in the world. 

They faced external threats from Indonesia as well as from Malaysia, where some people wanted to forcefully bring Singapore back under more favorable terms.

On top of all those problems, Singapore was a multi-ethnic state trying to balance the needs of Chinese, Malay, and Indians. 

Most international observers thought Singapore had no chance of surviving as an independent country. 

Singapore began what can only be described as the greatest economic renaissance in modern history. Many have called it the Singapore Miracle in that it went from being a third-world country to a first-world country in a single generation. 

One of the first things which was done was to establish English as the official working language of the country. This was done so as not to give any of the major ethnic or linguistic groups an advantage and to integrate Singapore into the wider world economy.

While English is used for business, many Singaporeans will speak what is known as Singlish, which is a Creole language. It is a mix of English, several Chinese dialects, Bahasa and Tamil.

A policy of pursuing high-value immigrants was implemented to bring in intellectual capital to compensate for their lack of natural resources. In fact, I remember meeting with someone from the Singapore Tourism Board during one of my trips to Singapore, and within the first five minutes, they asked me if I have considered moving to Singapore. 

Tax breaks and other incentives were given to foreign businesses to set up shop to provide jobs.

Singapore used its position on the Strait of Malacca to establish one of the world’s largest shipping ports. 

It built the Changi Airport, which has become one of the largest and, quite frankly, best airports in the world. 

It established itself as a banking and financial hub, and it is now considered to be the largest financial center in Asia and the third largest in the world, behind only New York and London.

The government invested in private companies such as Singapore Airlines, but unlike other countries where inefficient businesses often wasted such investments, Singapore expects the companies they invest in to turn a profit, and they can go out of business if they fail.

To combat corruption, they increased the pay of civil servants to the same levels as in the private sector. In addition to decreasing corruption, it ensures they get top talent. Today, Singapore ranks as one of the top five least corrupt countries in the world.

On the educational front, they established one of the best educational systems in the world. Secondary school students in Singapore rank at or near the top in scores in reading, math, and science. The National University of Singapore is often ranked as one of the top 10 universities in the world.

Antiliterring policies have also made Singapore one of the cleanest cities in the world. It also has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

The end result of all these policies implemented over the last 60 years is that Singapore has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest. Depending on what data set you look at, Singapore is in the top 5 or 10 for the highest GDP per capita.

While I’m painting a rosy picture of Singapore, and much of it is well deserved, as with every country, it has its problems. 

For starters, the People’s Action Party has controlled the government ever since the first election in 1959. For a period after independence, they won every single seat in the legislature. While other political parties are allowed, Singapore effectually has one-party rule.

There are a lot of small rules and fines in place. The most famous of which is the ban on chewing gum. In 1992, chewing gum became illegal to import or sell. You can legally chew gum, and tourists can bring in a small amount, but you can buy any, and of course, you can’t just drop it on the ground.

Singapore has become extremely expensive. Rent and food prices can be prohibitive. High taxes on automobiles result in only 15% of Singaporeans owning their own car. One of the lowest rates in the developed world. 

Most Singaporeans live in high-rise government-owned apartments which are subsidized, which is a result of high prices and living in a densely populated city. Singapore has the highest population density of any country in the world other than Monaco, which only has 36,000 people. Singapore has a population of 5.7 million today.

I first visited Singapore in 1999, and I’ve been back several times. I became fascinated by the city during my first visit, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. 

What the country has managed to achieve in 60 years is truly remarkable, especially considering how few things it had going for it when it was expelled from Malaysia.