EARLY HISTORY OF SINGAPORE

SHORT DESCRIPTION OF SINGAPORE

Date of Independence: August 31, 1963, from Britain; August 9, 1965, from the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963 but separated two years later and became independent. Singapore subsequently became one of the world''s most prosperous countries with strong international trading links (its port is one of the world''s busiest in terms of tonnage handled) and with per capita GDP equal to that of the leading nations of Western Europe. [Source: CIA World Factbook]

The modern nation of the Republic of Singapore, was founded as a British trading post on the Strait of Malacca in 1819. Singapore's location on the major sea route between India and China, its excellent harbor, and the free trade status conferred on it by its visionary founder, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, made the port an overnight success. By 1990 the multiethnic population attracted to the island had grown from a few thousand to 2.6 million Singaporeans, frequently referred to by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as his nation's greatest resource. If Raffles had set the tone for the island's early success, Lee had safeguarded the founder's vision through the first quarter-century of Singapore's existence as an independent nation, providing the leadership that turned it into a global city that offered trading and financial services to the region and to the world. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Modern Singapore would be scarcely recognizable to Raffles, who established his trading center on an island covered with tropical forests and ringed with mangrove swamps. Towering skyscrapers replace the colonial town he designed, and modern expressways cover the tracks of bullock carts that once led from the harbor to the commercial district and the countryside beyond. Hills have been leveled, swamps filled, and the island itself expanded in size through extensive land reclamation projects. Offshore islands are used for recreation parks, oil refineries, and military training bases. Despite the scarcity of land for real estate, the government has worked to maintain and expand the island's parks, gardens, and other green spaces. By housing 88 percent of its population in mostly multistoried public housing, Singapore has kept a rein on suburban sprawl. In Raffles's town plan, separate areas were set aside for the various ethnic groups of the time: Malays, Chinese, Arabs, Bugis, and Europeans. Government resettlement programs begun in the 1960s broke up the former ethnic enclaves by requiring that the public housing projects--called housing estates--that replaced them reflect the ethnic composition of the country as a whole. As a result, modern Singapore's three main ethnic groups--Chinese, Malays, and Indians--live next door to each other and share the same housing development facilities, shops, and transportation. *

Probably the world's only ex-colony to have independence forced upon it, Singapore responded to its unanticipated expulsion from Malaysia in August 1965 by concentrating on economic development and by fostering a sense of nationhood. Though the survival of the miniature state was in doubt for a time, it not only survived but also managed to achieve the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia. The country also enjoyed a rare political continuity; its ruling party and prime minister triumphed in every election from 1959 to 1988. *

Short History of Singapore

While the earliest known historical records of Singapore are shrouded in the mists of time, a third century Chinese account describes it as "Pu-luo-chung", or the "island at the end of a peninsula". Later, the city was known as Temasek ("Sea Town"), when the first settlements were established from AD 1298-1299. [Source: YourSingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

During the 14th century, this small but strategically located island earned a new name. According to the legend, Sang Nila Utama, a Prince from Palembang (the capital of Srivijaya), was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. Taking it to be a good sign, he founded a city where the animal had been spotted, naming it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city).

At this time, the city was then ruled by the five kings of ancient Singapura. Located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, the natural meeting point of sea routes, the city served as a flourishing trading post for a wide variety of sea crafts, from Chinese junks, Indian vessels, Arab dhows and Portuguese battleships to Buginese schooners.

The next important period in the history of Singapore was during the 19th century, when modern Singapore was founded. At this time, Singapore was already an up and coming trading post along the Malacca Straits, and Britain realised the need for a port of call in the region. British traders needed a strategic venue to refresh and protect the merchant fleet of the growing empire, as well as forestall any advance made by the Dutch in the region.

The then Lieutenant-Governor of Bencoolen (now Bengkulu) in Sumatra, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore on 29 January 1819, after a survey of the neighbouring islands. Recognising the immense potential of the swamp covered island, he helped negotiate a treaty with the local rulers, establishing Singapore as a trading station. Soon, the island’s policy of free trade attracted merchants from all over Asia and from as far away as the US and the Middle East.

In 1832, Singapore became the centre of government for the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the advent of the telegraph and steamship, Singapore's importance as a centre of the expanding trade between the East and West increased tremendously. By 1860, the thriving country had a population that had grown from a mere 150 in 1819 to 80,792, comprising mainly Chinese, Indians and Malays.

But the peace and prosperity of the country suffered a major blow during World War II, when it was attacked by the Japanese aircrafts on 8 December 1941. Once regarded as an impregnable fortress, Singapore fell under the Japanese invasion on 15 February 1942. It remained occupied by the Japanese for the next three and half years, a time marked by great oppression and an immense loss of lives. When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the island was handed over to the British Military Administration, which remained in power until the dissolve of the Straits Settlement comprising Penang, Melaka and Singapore. In March 1946, Singapore became a Crown Colony.

In 1959, the growth of nationalism led to self-government, and the country’s first general election. The People’s Action Party (PAP) won a majority of 43 seats and Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister of Singapore. In 1961, Singapore joined Malaya and merged with the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak and North Borneo to form Malaysia in 1963. However, the merger proved unsuccessful, and less than two years later on 9 August 1965, Singapore left Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign democratic nation. On 22 December that year, Singapore finally became an independent republic.

Early History of Singapore

While the earliest known historical records of Singapore are shrouded in the mists of time, a third century Chinese account describes it as "Pu-luo-chung", or the "island at the end of a peninsula". [Source: YourSingapore.com, Singapore Tourism Board]

By the seventh century, when a succession of maritime states arose throughout the Malay Archipelago, Singapore probably was one of the many trading outposts serving as an entrepôt and supply point for Malay, Thai, Javanese, Chinese, Indian, and Arab traders. A fourteenth-century Javanese chronicle referred to the island as Temasek ("Sea Town"), and a seventeenth-century Malay annal noted the 1299 founding of the city of Singapura (“lion city”) after a strange, lion-like beast that had been sighted there. Singapura was controlled by a succession of regional empires and Malayan sultanates.

In time, the ports of the peninsula and archipelago formed the nucleus of a succession of seabased kingdoms, empires, and sultanates. By the late seventh century, the great maritime Srivijaya Empire, with its capital at Palembang in eastern Sumatra, had extended its rule over much of the peninsula and archipelago. Historians believe that the island of Singapore was probably the site of a minor port of Srivijaya. Temasek and Singapura

Early Accounts of Singapore

Although legendary accounts shroud Singapore's earliest history, chroniclers as far back as the second century alluded to towns or cities that may have been situated at that favored location. Some of the earliest records of this region are the reports of Chinese officials who served as envoys to the seaports and empires of the Nanyang (southern ocean), the Chinese term for Southeast Asia. The earliest first-hand account of Singapore appears in a geographical handbook written by the Chinese traveler Wang Dayuan in 1349. Wang noted that Singapore Island, which he called Tan-ma-hsi (Danmaxi), was a haven for several hundred boatloads of pirates who preyed on passing ships. He also described a settlement of Malay and Chinese living on a terraced hill known in Malay legend as Bukit Larangan (Forbidden Hill), the reported burial place of ancient kings. The fourteenth-century Javanese chronicle, the Nagarakertagama, also noted a settlement on Singapore Island, calling it Temasek. [Source: Library of Congress *]

A Malay seventeenth-century chronicle, the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), recounts the founding of a great trading city on the island in 1299 by a ruler from Palembang, Sri Tri Buana, who named the city Singapura ("lion city") after sighting a strange beast that he took to be a lion. The prosperous Singapura, according to the Annals, in the mid-fourteenth century suffered raids by the expanding Javanese Majapahit Empire to the south and the emerging Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya to the north, both at various times claiming the island as a vassal state. *

The Annals, as well as contemporaneous Portuguese accounts, note the arrival around 1388 of King Paramesvara from Palembang, who was fleeing Majapahit control. Although granted asylum by the ruler of Singapura, the king murdered his host and seized power. Within a few years, however, Majapahit or Thai forces again drove out Paramesvara, who fled northward to found eventually the great seaport and kingdom of Malacca. In 1414 Paramesvara converted to Islam and established the Malacca Sultanate, which in time controlled most of the Malay Peninsula, eastern Sumatra, and the islands between, including Singapura. Fighting ships for the sultanate were supplied by a senior Malaccan official based at Singapura. The city of Malacca served not only as the major seaport of the region in the fifteenth century, but also as the focal point for the dissemination of Islam throughout insular Southeast Asia.

Legend of Sang Nila Utama

According to legend, Sang Nila Utama, a Prince from Palembang (the capital of Srivijaya), was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. Taking it to be a good sign, he founded a city in 1299 where the animal had been spotted, naming it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city). At this time, the city was then ruled by the five kings of ancient Singapura. Located at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, the natural meeting point of sea routes, the city served as a flourishing trading post for a wide variety of sea crafts, from Chinese junks, Indian vessels, Arab dhows and Portuguese battleships to Buginese schooners.

Sang Nila Utama (literally the "main indigo") was officially styled as Sri Maharaja Sang Utama Parameswara Batara Sri Tri Buana (meaning: "Lord Central King Batara of Three world Realms", signifying his lordship over Palembang, Bintan and Singapura). Sang Nila Utama strengthened his position by establishing powerful relationships with China, and officially recognised as the ruler of Singapore by an envoy of Chinese emperor in 1320. He died in 1347 and succeeded by his son, Paduka Seri Wikrama Wira. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to a longer version of the legend: Wanting to find a suitable place for a new city, Sang Nila Utama decided to visit the islands off the coast of Palembang South Sumatra. He set sail in a number of ships as in a fleet. He and his men reached the Riau Islands and were welcomed by the queen. A few days later, Sang Nila Utama went to a nearby island on a hunting trip. While hunting, he spotted a deer or stag and started chasing it up a small hill but when he reached the top, the deer or stag vanished but he came to a very large rock and decided to climb it. When he stood on top of the rock, he looked across the sea and saw another island with a white sandy beach which had the appearance of a white sheet of cloth. +

Asking his Chief Minister what land it was, he was told that it was the island of Temasek. He then decided to visit Temasek. However, when his ship was out into the sea, a great storm erupted and the ship was tossed about in the huge waves. The ship began to take in water. To prevent it from sinking, his men threw all the heavy things on board into the sea to lighten the ship. But still water kept entering the ship. On the advice of the ship's Captain that he was being stopped by his grandfather the Lord of the Sea, he threw his crown overboard as a gift to his grandfather. At once, the storm died down and he reached Temasek safely. (Another version of the legend stated that his crown was too heavy for his ship.) +

He landed at the mouth of the present-day Singapore River and went inland to hunt wild animals. Suddenly, he saw a strange animal with an orange body, black head and a white neck breast. It was a fine-looking animal and moved with great speed as it disappeared into the jungle. He asked his chief minister what animal it was, and was told that it probably was a lion. However, recent studies of Singapore indicate that lions have never lived there (not even Asiatic lions), and the beast seen by Sang Nila Utama was likely a tiger, most likely the Malayan Tiger. However, it was refuted by some that since tigers were a norm in ancient Southeast Asian regions, Sang Nila Utama and his men could have easily distinguish a tiger when they see one. There has been speculation that the animal was indeed not a lion but a mythical creature that resembled one, which was regarded as the guardian of Temasek. +

He was pleased with this as he believed it to be a good omen—a sign of good fortune coming his way. Thus, he decided to build his new city in Temasek. He and his men stayed on the island and founded a city in 1324. He renamed this city "Singapura". "Singa" is a Malay word for lion which itself derived from Sanskrit word "Singha" of the same meaning, and "Pura" means Temple in Malay or Town in Sanskrit. The name thus means the "Lion City". He established diplomatic ties with China, and was officially recognised as the ruler of Singapore by an envoy of Chinese emperor in 1366. Sang Nila Utama ruled Singapura for 48 years and was buried on the foot of Bukit Larangan (present-day Fort Canning Hill). It was said that he was buried beside his wife, but the tombs and remains of he and his wife have not been located. Some believed that his body was actually the body that belongs to Keremat (Malay word for tomb or shrine) Iskander Shah. +

Trade in Proto-Singapore

Singapore was strategically located at the junction of the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea at the southern tip of what is now Southeast Asia. Maritime trade carried on Arab dhows, Portuguese ships, Chinese junks and Buginese prabus between China, Japan and the Spice Islands in the Far East and India, Europe and the Middle East to the west all sailed by. In the 14th century it was known on some charts as Temask ("Sea Town").

Located astride the sea routes between China and India, from ancient times the Malay Archipelago served as an entrepôt, supply point, and rendezvous for the sea traders of the kingdoms and empires of the Asian mainland and the Indian subcontinent. The trade winds of the South China Sea brought Chinese junks laden with silks, damasks, porcelain, pottery, and iron to seaports that flourished on the Malay Peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Java. There they met with Indian and Arab ships, brought by the monsoons of the Indian Ocean, carrying cotton textiles, Venetian glass, incense, and metalware. Fleets of swift prahu (interisland craft) supplied fish, fruit, and rice from Java and pepper and spices from the Moluccas in the eastern part of the archipelago. All who came brought not only their trade goods but also their cultures, languages, religions, and technologies for exchange in the bazaars of this great crossroads. [Source: Library of Congress]

See Maritime Silk Road factsanddetails.com

Early European Presence in the Singapore Area

Portuguese explorers captured the port of Melaka (Malacca)—not far from present-day Singapore—in 1511, forcing the reigning sultan to flee south, where he established a new regime, the Johore Sultanate, that incorporated Singapura. The Portuguese burned down a trading post at the mouth of the Temasek (Singapore) River in 1613; after that, the island was largely abandoned and trading and planting activities moved south to the Riau Islands and Sumatra. However, planting activities had returned to Temasek by the early nineteenth century.

By the early seventeenth century, both the Dutch and the English were sending regular expeditions to the East Indies. The English soon gave up the trade, however, and concentrated their efforts on India. In 1641 the Dutch captured Malacca and soon after replaced the Portuguese as the preeminent European power in the Malay Archipelago. From their capital at Batavia on Java, they sought to monopolize the spice trade. Their short-sighted policies and harsh treatment of offenders, however, impoverished their suppliers and encouraged smuggling and piracy by the Bugis and other peoples. By 1795, the Dutch enterprise in the East was losing money and, in Europe, the Netherlands was at war with France. The Dutch king fled to Britain where, in desperation, he issued the Kew Letters, by which all Dutch overseas territories were temporarily placed under British authority in order to keep them from falling to the French.

Johore Sultanate

When the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, the reigning Malaccan sultan fled to Johore in the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, where he established a new sultanate. Singapura became part of the new Johore Sultanate and was the base for one of its senior officials in the latter sixteenth century. In 1613, however, the Portuguese reported burning down a trading outpost at the mouth of the Temasek (Singapore) River, and Singapura passed into history. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the following two centuries, the island of Temasek was largely abandoned and forgotten as the fortunes of the Johore Sultanate rose and fell. By 1722 a vigorous seafaring people from the island of Celebes (modern Sulawesi, Indonesia) had become the power behind the throne of the Johore Sultanate. Under Bugis influence, the sultanate built up a lucrative entrepôt trade, centered at Riau, south of Singapore, in present-day Sumatra. Riau also was the site of major plantations of pepper and gambier, a medicinal plant used in tanning. The Bugis used waste material from the gambier refining process to fertilize pepper plants, a valuable crop, but one that quickly depletes soil nutrients. By 1784 an estimated 10,000 Chinese laborers had been brought from southern China to work the gambier plantations on Bintan Island in the Riau archipelago (now part of Indonesia). In the early nineteenth century, gambier was in great demand in Java, Siam, and elsewhere, and cultivation of the crop had spread from Riau to the island of Singapore. *

The territory controlled by the Johore Sultanate in the late eighteenth century was somewhat reduced from that under its precursor, the Malacca Sultanate, but still included the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, the adjacent area of Sumatra, and the islands between, including Singapore. The sultanate had become increasingly weakened by division into a Malay faction, which controlled the peninsula and Singapore, and a Bugis faction, which controlled the Riau Archipelago and Sumatra. When the ruling sultan died without a royal heir, the Bugis had proclaimed as sultan the younger of his two sons by a commoner wife. The sultan's elder son, Hussein (or Tengku Long) resigned himself to living in obscurity in Riau. *

Although the sultan was the nominal ruler of his domain, senior officials actually governed the sultanate. In control of Singapore and the neighboring islands was Temenggong Abdu'r Rahman, Hussein's father-in-law. In 1818 the temenggong (a high Malay official) and some of his followers left Riau for Singapore shortly after the Dutch signed a treaty with the Bugis-controlled sultan, allowing them to station a garrison at Riau. The temenggong's settlement on the Singapore River included several hundred orang laut (sea gypsies in Malay) under Malay overlords who owed allegiance to the temenggong. For their livelihood the inhabitants depended on fishing, fruit growing, trading, and occasional piracy. Large pirate fleets also used the strait between Singapore and the Riau Archipelago as a favorite rendezvous. Also living on the island in settlements along the rivers and creeks were several hundred indigenous tribespeople, who lived by fishing and gathering jungle produce. Some thirty Chinese, probably brought from Riau by the temenggong, had begun gambier and pepper production on the island. In all, perhaps a thousand people inhabited the island of Singapore at the dawn of the colonial era. *

Singapore's last sultan died 1835. He ruled Singapore and parts of southern Malaysia until he formally ceded them to the British in 1824. More than 200 of the sultan’s relatives continued to live in his palace until they were thrown out in 1999.

Anglo-Dutch Competition Over Singapore

In the early 19th century, Singapore was an up and coming trading post along the Malacca Straits, and Britain realised the need for a port of call in the region. British traders needed a strategic venue to refresh and protect the merchant fleet of the growing empire, as well as forestall any advance made by the Dutch in the region.

In the early 1800s, Singapore was known for its tiger-infested jungles and pirate-ridden seas. It was a mostly-uninhabited swampy island surrounded by small islands occasionally used by pirates. Sentosa, an island that now has several theme parks, used to be known as Pulau Blakang Mati (the island in front of death) because pirate launched attacks from it. In 1818 Temasek was settled by a Malay official of the Johore Sultanate and his followers, who shared the island with several hundred indigenous tribal people and Chinese planters.

In the late eighteenth century, the British began to expand their commerce with China from their bases in India through both private traders and the British East India Company. The company had occupied a small settlement at Bencoolen (Bengkulu) on the western coast of Sumatra since 1684; from there it had engaged in the pepper trade after being forced out of Java by the Dutch. Acutely aware of the need for a base somewhere midway between Calcutta and Guangzhou, the company leased the island of Penang, on the western coast of the Malay Peninsula, from the sultan of Kedah in 1791.

From these posts at Penang and Bencoolen, the British began in 1795 to occupy the Dutch possessions placed temporarily in their care by the Kew Letters, including Malacca and Java. After war in Europe ended in 1814, however, the British agreed to return Java and Malacca to the Dutch. By 1818 the Dutch had returned to the East Indies and had reimposed their restrictive trade policies. In that same year, the Dutch negotiated a treaty with the Bugis-controlled sultan of Johore granting them permission to station a garrison at Riau, thereby giving them control over the main passage through the Strait of Malacca. British trading ships were heavily taxed at Dutch ports and suffered harassment by the Dutch navy. Meanwhile, the British government and the British East India Company officials in London, who were concerned with maintaining peace with the Dutch, consolidating British control in India, and reducing their commitments in the East Indies, considered relinquishing Bencoolen and perhaps Penang to the Dutch in exchange for Dutch territories in India.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Singapore Tourism Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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