During the first half of the twentieth century, Singapore prospered as financial institutions, transportation, communications, and government infrastructure expanded rapidly to support the booming trade and industry of the British Empire. By 1911, Singapore had a popualtion of 250,000, with rsidnets from 48 races (mainly from Malaya, southern Chinese provinces, Indonesia and India) and speakers of 54 languages.

In the early twentieth century, Singapore had expanded its financial institutions, communications, and infrastructure in order to support its booming trade and industry. British banks predominated, although by 1905 there were Indian, Australian, American, Chinese, and French-owned banks as well. Telegraph service from India and Europe reached Singapore in 1870, and telephone service within Singapore was installed in 1879 and extended to Johore in 1882. The more than sixty European-owned companies in the Straits Settlements crown colony in the 1870s were largely confined to Singapore and Penang. Far more prosperous were some of the Chinese firms in Singapore that were beginning to expand their business links throughout Asia. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Singapore's port facilities failed to keep up with its commercial development until the publicly owned Tanjong Pagar Dock Board (renamed Singapore Harbour Board in 1913) set about replacing old wharves and warehouses and installing modern machinery and a new graving dock (dry dock). Trucks gradually replaced ox carts for transporting goods from the harbor to the town, and by 1909 it was possible to travel from Singapore to Penang by train and railroad ferry. The Johore Causeway linked road and rail transportation between Singapore and the peninsula after 1923. *

Improvements in Education and Social Services Singapore in the Early 20th Century

David Lamb wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “By World War I, Singapore's population had reached 340,000, and a city had emerged with two-story shop-houses, handsome government buildings and a harbor filled with the ships of many nations. The residents were largely uneducated. And, like many port cities, Singapore was crowded with transient males, gamblers, prostitutes and opium users. (The British had a virtual monopoly on the sale of opium.) Singapore became known as Sin City, only in part because of the abbreviation of its name, in striking contrast to the strait-laced, priggish image it would nurture after independence in 1965. [Source: David Lamb, Smithsonian magazine, September 2007]

At the turn of the century, social advancement lagged far behind economic development in Singapore. While the wealthy enjoyed their social clubs, sports facilities, mansions, and suburban estates, the lower classes endured a grim existence marked by poverty, overcrowding, malnutrition, and disease. Malaria, cholera, and opium addiction were chiefly responsible for Singapore's mortality rate, which in 1896 was higher than that of Hong Kong, Ceylon, or India. A 1907 government commission to investigate the opium problem found that the majority of opium deaths were among the poor, who were reduced to smoking the dregs of used opium. Campaigns by missionaries and European-educated Chinese to ban opium use were successfully opposed by tax farmers and businessmen. By 1900 the opium tax provided one-half of the revenue of the colonial government, and both Asian and European businessmen resisted its replacement with an income tax. As an alternative, the government in 1910 took over all manufacture and sale of opium, setting up a factory at Pasir Panjang. Opium sales continued to constitute half of the government's revenue, but the most dangerous use of the drug had been curtailed. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Education was generally in a backward state. Most primary schools in which Malay, Chinese, or Tamil was the medium of instruction were of poor quality. English-language primary schools were mostly run by Christian missionaries, and the only secondary education was provided by Raffles Institution beginning in 1884. In 1902 the government formulated an Education Code, under which it took responsibility for providing English-language primary schools; the following year it took over Raffles Institution. With the support of the Chinese community, the government opened a medical school in 1905 that had a first class of twenty-three students. Upgraded to the King Edward Medical College in 1920, the school formed the cornerstone of the future Singapore University. The affluent of Singapore sent their children to the English-language schools, which had steadily improved their standards. The brightest students vied for the Queen's Scholarships, founded in 1889, which provided for university education in Britain for Asian students. Many prosperous Asian families themselves sent their children to school in Britain. An English-language education at either the secondary or university level provided many Asians with the key to government, professional, or business employment. It also created a bond among the upper classes of all ethnic groups. *

Under the leadership of reformist Chinese, Singapore's Chinese- language schools were also expanded and modernized at this time. A scientific curriculum was added to the traditional education in Chinese classics and Confucian morality. Students from Chinese- language schools often continued their education in China, where a school for Nanyang students had been opened in Nanjing in 1907 to prepare them for a role in Singapore's Chinese community. At the turn of the century, schools were even established in Singapore for Chinese women, who before that time had led severely cloistered lives under the domination of their husbands and mothers-in-law. By 1911 Chinese women were receiving instruction in Malay, English, Chinese, music, sewing, and cooking. Malay and Tamil-language primary schools continued to decline, and few students were able to progress from them to the English-language secondary level. *

Military Issues and Singapore During World War I

Responsibility for Singapore's defense had been a contentious issue between London and Singapore almost since its founding. The Singapore merchants resisted any attempts to levy taxes for fortifications and even objected to paying the cost of maintaining a small garrison on this island. In 1886 troubles with Russia over Afghanistan and worry over the Russian navy in the Pacific, prompted the British to begin fortifying the port area and building new barracks and other military facilities. The Singapore business community resisted strenuously London's proposal to double the colony's annual military contribution, insisting that the island was a critical link in the imperial chain. The colony, nonetheless, was required to pay a larger sum although slightly less than originally demanded. The British signed a defensive treaty with Japan in 1902. The Japanese defeat of the Russian navy in 1905 removed that threat to Britain's seapower in Asia, thus enabling Britain to concentrate its navy in its home waters in response to a German naval buildup. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Singapore essentially sat out World War I. Fear that the island would be attacked by German; East Asiatic Squadron never materialized. Singapore's German business community, nonetheless, was rounded up and interned comfortably at their Teutonia Club. The only incident of the war period was the mutiny of Singapore's small garrison, the 800 troops of the Fifth Light Infantry Regiment. The regiment, composed entirely of Punjabi Muslims, was angered that Britain was at war with Muslim Turkey. When the regiment was ordered to Hong Kong in February 1915, rumors spread through the unit that they were actually being sent to fight in France or Turkey. On the eve of its departure, the regiment mutinied, killed the officers, and terrorized the town. Within ten days the rebellion had been put down by a combined force of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery (a unit of 450 volunteers formed in 1914), police, Malay troops from Johore, the crews of British, French, Japanese, and Russian warships in port, and several hundred civilians. After the mutineers were rounded up, thirty-six were shot in public executions and the others were imprisoned or sent on active duty elsewhere. Subseqquently, hard feelings were created in Singapore's Indian community by a requirement that its members register with the government. A small British detachment was brought in to garrison the post for the rest of the war, with the aid of the Singapore Volunteer Artillery. *

Singapore Between the World Wars

Although Singapore was largely unaffected by World War I (1914–18), still it experienced the same postwar boom and depression as the rest of the world. Along with the influx of Chinese migrants over the previous decades came secret societies and kinship and place-name associations that grew to have great influence on society. Political activities surfaced in Singapore among the large Chinese population, first in the early 1900s between advocates of reform and revolution in China. Then, in the 1930s there was increased interest in developments in China, and many supported either the Chinese Communist Party or the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang). The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was established in 1930 and competed with local branches of the Guomindang. Both sides, however, strongly supported China against the rising tide of Japanese aggression. Some years earlier, in 1923, in reaction to Japan’s increasing naval power, the British began building a large naval base at Singapore. It was costly and unpopular, but when completed in 1941, this “Gibraltar of the East” posed an attractive target for Japan. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Singapore economy experienced much the same roller-coaster effect that Western economies did in the period between the world wars. A postwar boom created by rising tin and rubber prices gave way to recession in late 1920 when prices for both dropped on the world market. By the mid-1920s, rubber and tin prices had soared again and fortunes were made overnight. Tan Kah Kee, who had migrated from Xiamen (Amoy) at age seventeen, reportedly made S$8 million in 1925 in rubber, rice milling, andd shipping; and Hakka businessman Aw Boon Haw earned the nickname "Tiger Balm King" for the multimillion-dollar fortune he made from the production and sale of patent medicines. Although they never amassed the great fortunes of Singapore's leading Asian businessmen, the prosperous European community increasingly lived in the style and comfort afforded by modern conveniences and an abundance of servants. *

The Baba Chinese leaders focused their attention on improving educational opportunities, which meant lobbying for free Englishlanguage primary schools and more scholarships for English-language secondary schools. Although English-language schools expanded rapidly, most educated Straits-born Chinese studied at Chineselanguage schools. Of the 72,000 children in Singapore schools in 1939, 38,000 were in Chinese schools, 27,000 in English schools, 6,000 in Malay schools, and 1,000 in Tamil schools. *

The Straits-born Chinese increased their share of Singapore's Chinese population from 25 percent in 1921 to 36 percent in 1931. Chinese immigration was drastically cut by the Immigration Restriction Ordinance of 1930, which limited immigration of unskilled male laborers. Put in force to combat unemployment resulting from the Great Depression, the ordinance dropped the number of Chinese immigrants from 242,000 in 1930 to 28,000 in 1933. Immigration was further restricted by the Aliens Ordinance of 1933, which set quotas and charged landing fees for aliens. Executive Council member Tan Cheng Lock and others bitterly opposed the policy in the Legislative Council as anti-Chinese. *

The administration of the colony continued to be carried out by the governor and top-level officials of the Malayan Civil Service, posts that could be held only by "natural-born British subjects of pure European descent on both sides." The governor continued to consult with the Legislative Council, which included a handful of wealthy Asian business and professional leaders, who served as nonofficial members of the council. The mid-level and technical civil service positions were open to British subjects of all races. Very few Asians opposed the system, which gave the official members the majority on the legislative and executive councils. In the 1930s, Tan agitated unsuccessfully for direct popular representation and a nonofficial majority for the legislative council, but most Chinese were satisfied to devote their attentions to commercial and professional affairs and the growing interest in nationalism in China. *

Singapore, the Straits Chinese and China Before World War II

The sympathies of even the Straits-born Chinese lay with their homeland in the period between the wars. A Singapore branch of the Guomindang was active for a few years beginning in 1912, and Chinaoriented businessmen led boycotts in 1915 against Japanese goods in response to Japan's Twenty-One Demands against China. These demands were a set of political and economic ultimatums, which if acceded to, would have made China a protectorate of Japan. Mass support for Chinese nationalism became more evident in 1919 when demonstrations, which turned violent, were staged in Singapore. In the early 1920s, Sun Yat-sen was successful in convincing Singapore's China-born businessmen to invest heavily in Chinese industry and to donate large sums of money for education in China. Tan Kah Kee contributed more than S$4 million for the founding of Amoy (Xiamen) University in 1924. The Guomindang also sent teachers and textbooks to Singapore and encouraged the use of Mandarin (or Guoyu) in Singapore's Chinese schools. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Although Mandarin was not the language of any of Singapore's major dialect groups, it was considered a unifying factor by the various Chinese leadership factions of both Singapore and China. Singapore's first Chinese secondary school, established by Tan in 1919, taught in Mandarin, as did a growing number of Chinese primary schools. In 1927 the Guomindang increased the number of promising students brought to China for university education and began a concerted effort to extend its control over Chinese schools in the Nanyang by supervising their curriculum and requiring the use of Mandarin. In the late 1920s, the colonial authorities had become increasingly aware of growing left-wing politics in the Chinese schools and sought to discourage the use of Mandarin as required by the Guomindang. By 1935, however, Mandarin had become the medium of instruction in all of Singapore's Chinese schools. *

Following the breakup of the short-lived alliance between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the communists established a Nanyang Communist Party in 1928. Outlawed and harassed by the Singapore police, the party was reorganized in 1930 as the Malayan Communist Party ( MCP), centered in Singapore. For the remainder of that year, it had some success in infiltrating teacher and student organizations and staging student strikes. In early 1931, however, the seizure by the police of an address book containing information on the newly organized party and its connections with the Far Eastern Bureau of the Communist International ( Comintern) in Shanghai, led to arrests and the near destruction of the CPM by the following year. The Guomindang also had its problems during this period. The party's membership in Singapore had expanded rapidly until 1929, when the colonial administration banned the Singapore branch of the Guomindang and fund-raising for the party in China. Concerned about the increase of anticolonial propaganda, the Singapore government censored the vernacular press, severely restricted immigration, and cut off aid to Chinese and Tamil schools. During the 1930s, attempts by the communists and the Guomindang to organize labor and lead strikes were also suppressed by the colonial government. *

Chinese nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment in Singapore increased throughout the 1930s. The fortunes of both the Guomindang and the MCP rose with invasion of Manchuria by Japan in 1931 and the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937. The CCP and the Guomindang formed a united front in December 1936 to oppose Japanese aggression. The Guomindang called upon the Nanyang Chinese for volunteer and financial support for the Republic of China, which had promulgated a Nationality Law in 1929, by which it claimed all persons of Chinese descent on the paternal side as Chinese nationals. Tan Kah Kee headed both the Nanyang Chinese National Salvation Movement and the Singapore Chinese General Association for the Relief of Refugees, as well as the fund-raising efforts for the homeland among the Malayan Chinese. Chinese government agents used the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and other local organizations to organize highly effective boycotts against Japanese goods. Singapore's Chinese also boycotted Malay or Indian shops selling Japanese goods, and Chinese merchants who ignored the boycott were severely punished by extremist groups. *

The British authorities struggled vainly to control the tide of anti-Japanese feeling by forbidding anti-Japanese demonstrations and by banning importation of anti-Japanese textbooks from China and the teaching of anti-Japanese slogans and songs in Chinese schools. They were alarmed at the communist infiltration of the Nanyang Chinese National Salvation Movement and other Chinese patriotic groups. The banned MCP claimed a membership of more than 50,000 by early 1940. Although nominally partners in a united front in opposition to the Japanese, the MCP and the Guomindang competed for control of such organizations as the Nanyang Chinese Relief General Association. Nonetheless, Singapore's Chinese contributed generously to the support of the Chinese government. *

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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