Singapore: A Very Short History from Temasek to Tomorrow

The Singapore Bicentennial year of 2019 has resulted in an upsurge of publications devoted to commemorating the momentous occasion. This book – a result of Alvin Tan’s ambitious goal to write, using less than 60,000 words, a concise and easy-to-grasp history of Singapore that spans 700 years – is one of the plethora of tomes. This is a highly condensed history of Singapore crammed into 167 pages but is an easy and quick read!

The first recorded settlement in Singapore, then named Temasek was around 1299. Temasek was the export gateway to China and the island was the collection centre for goods from the region. The Chinese wanted products like lakawood, turtle shells, hornbill casques and sea cucumbers. In exchange, they brought in fine ceramics which were re-exported to Singapore’s neighbours.

Singapore’s prosperity did not last as famine hit China. Also, the new Ming government banned private trade by individuals. By the early 15th century, Malacca, then called Melaka had replaced Singapore as an important port.

The Sejarah Melayu (the Malay Annals) had the account of how a Sri Vijavan prince, Sang Nia Utama or Sri Tri Buana came to Temasek, saw a lion, and renamed Temasek as Singapura, the Lion City.

In the late 18th century, global forces once again put Singapore on the spotlight. The British rose in power. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, an agent of the British East India Company came to Singapore in January 1819. He gained permission from the local Malay officials to establish a trading post. He renamed Singapura as Singapore. Sir Raffles opened the port to free trade and free immigration. By 1827, Chinese had become the biggest ethnic group in Singapore.

The Suez Canal which opened on 17th November 1869 cut short the journey from Europe to Asia. A year after that, Singapore’s trade volume almost doubled to $71 million. By 1941, Singapore was the capital of the Straits Settlement and British Malaya.

Singapore’s fortune dimmed when the country fell to Japan during World War II. The Japanese Occupation lasted from 1942 to 1945. The country was renamed Syonan-To, or Light of the South.

The British returned in 1945. By then, British colonies in the region wanted independence. When the Federation of Malaya was established in 1948 as a move toward self-rule, Singapore remained as a separate crown colony. In the same year, the Malayan Communist Party launched an armed insurgency. The British declared a State of Emergency which ended in 1960.

In 1953, the British recommended partial internal self-government for Singapore. The following year, the People’s Action Party (PAP) was established under Lee Kuan Yew. His party won the elections in May 1959, and Lee Kuan Yew became the first prime minister.

The Federation of Malaya became the Federation of Malaysia after the merger of the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah (then named North Borneo) and Sarawak on 16th September 1963. The new federation was based on an uneasy alliance between the Malays and the Chinese. Singapore was an important part of the Federation because of its port. Fearing greater Singaporean dominance of the federation and violence between the Malays and Chinese, the government of Malaysia separated Singapore from the Federation on 9th August 1965.

On the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was set up. Singapore became the 117th member state of the United Nations on 21st September 1965, the 22nd member of the Commonwealth on 15th October 1965.

On the domestic front, the new government built up defence from scratch. Another task was to provide jobs. This was done by rapid industrialisation. Multinational corporations were welcomed for three reasons. They were a source of investment capital for factories, brought in technology, and helped train the workforce. By 1975, manufacturing accounted for 22% of Singapore’s Gross Domestic Product, up from 14% in 1965.

The government upgraded its port and airport, but these moves did not prevent Singapore from entering its first depression in 1985. The nation reacted by growing its services sector. By 2017, services made up almost 75% of the Gross Domestic Product.

To ensure its economic success, the country invested heavily in housing and education. Housing created social stability while education ensured people have capabilities as well as values.

Singapore suffered a great loss with the passing of Lee Kuan Yew on 23rd March 2015. The Bicentennial of the nation’s founding, launched in January 2019, was done in a low-key way. But unlike the sesquicentennial celebrations in 1969, in which the past was downplayed, the 2019 celebrations wholeheartedly embraced the city-state’s early modern, precolonial past.

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