By the 1800s, European powers had already explored much of the world, staking their authority over major trade routes. Southeast Asia's initial attraction was its position between two seasonal monsoons -- one half of the year saw winds that carried sailing vessels from China to Southeast Asia, while the other half of the year favored ships coming from India and Arabia. The English, Dutch, Portuguese, French, and Spanish, recognizing Southeast Asia's advantage, scrambled to set up trading posts to receive valuable tea, opium, silk, spices, and other goods from China.
The British East India Company, in its rivalry with the Dutch East Indies Company, sought to control the Straits of Malacca, the narrow passage between Indonesian Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. They already had a port at Penang, an island in the north of the Straits, but it was proving an economic failure. The company charged one of its officers, Sir Stamford Raffles, with the task of locating a new post. Raffles, who knew the area well, had his heart set on a small island at the tip of the Malay peninsula.
A Sleepy Backwater
At the time of its "discovery," Singapore was occupied by about 1,000 people, mainly Malay residents, orang laut (sea nomads), a handful of Chinese farmers, plus assorted pirates in hiding. The island had little-known historical significance. An early settlement on the island, called Temasek, had been visited regularly by Chinese merchants, and later the settlement came under the rule of the far-reaching Srivijaya Empire (9th-13th c. A.D.), which was based in Palembang in Sumatra. It was the Srivijayas who named the island Singapura, or Lion City, after its leader claimed to have seen a lion on its shores. However, the Srivijayas were eventually overtaken by a neighboring power, the Java-based Majapahits. Sometime around 1390, a young Palembang ruler, Iskander Shah (aka Parameswara), rebelled against the Majapahits and fled to Singapura, where he set up independent rule. The Majapahits were quick to chase him out, and Iskander fled up the Malay peninsula to Melaka (Malacca), where he founded what would be one of the most successful trading ports in the region at the time.
The British East India Company Arrives (1819-1827)
When Raffles arrived in 1819, Singapura had been asleep for nearly 400 years under the rule of the sultan of Johor, of the southernmost province in Malaya, with local administration handled by a temenggong, or senior minister. It was Temenggong Abdu'r Rahman who, on February 6, 1819, signed a treaty with Raffles to set up a trading post on the island in return for an annual payment to the Sultanate. After this, Raffles didn't stay around for too long, handing over the Residency of the port to his friend and colleague, Col. William Farquhar.
When Raffles returned 3 years later, Singapore was fast becoming a success story. The ideally situated port was inspired by Raffles's own dream of free trade and Farquhar's skill at orderly administration. The population had grown to more than 11,000 -- Malays, Chinese, Bugis (from Celebes in Indonesia), Indians, Arabs, Armenians, Europeans, and Eurasians. The haphazard sprawl convinced Raffles to draft the Town Plan of 1822, assigning specific neighborhoods to the many ethnic groups that had settled. These ethnic enclaves remain much the same today -- Singapore's Chinatown, the administrative center or Historic District, Kampong Glam, and other neighborhoods are still the ethnic centers they originally were (of course, with many modern alterations).
This would be the last trip Raffles would make to the island that credits him with its founding. His visit in 1822 was merely a stop on his way back to London to retire. Raffles had big plans for his career with the East India Company but never witnessed any of his ambitions come to fruition. In 1826, he died before he was even recognized for the role he played in the expansion of the British Empire -- he died penniless. He remains, however, a hero to modern-day Singaporeans.
In 1824, the Dutch finally signed a treaty with Britain acknowledging Singapore as a permanent British possession, and Sultan Hussein of Johor ceded the island to the East India Trading Company in perpetuity. Three years later, Singapore was incorporated, along with Melaka and Penang, to form the Straits Settlements. Penang was acknowledged as the settlements' seat of government, with direction from the Presidency of Bengal in India.
Early Immigrant Communities
Singapore's first 40 years were filled with all the magic of an oriental trading port. Chinese coolie laborers came to Singapore in droves to escape economic hardship at home. Most were from one of four major dialect groups: Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, and Hakka, all from southern China. Living in crowded bunks in the buildings that sprang up behind the go-downs, or warehouses, these immigrants formed secret societies, social and political organizations made up of residents who shared similar ancestry or Chinese hometowns. These clan groups helped new arrivals get settled and find work, and carried money and messages back to workers' families in China. But it was the secret societies' other contribution -- to gambling, street crime, and violence -- that helped fuel Singapore's image as a lawless boomtown, filled with all the excitement and danger of a frontier town in America's Wild West. Surrounded by boundless opportunity, many Chinese immigrants found great success, building fortunes as businessmen and traders.
Indians were quick to become Singapore's second-largest community. Most were traders or laborers, but many others were troops carried with the Brits. Most came from southern India, from the mainly Tamil-speaking population, including the Chettiars, Muslim moneylenders who financed the building of several places of worship in the early neighborhoods. After 1825, the British turned over possession of Bencoolen on Sumatra to the Dutch, transferring the thousands of Indian prisoners incarcerated there to Singapore, where they were put to work constructing the buildings and clearing the land that the fledgling settlement needed. After they'd worked off their sentences, many stayed in Singapore to work their trade as free men.
During this period, the Istana Kampong Glam was built in Raffles's designated Malay enclave, along with the Sultan Mosque. The surrounding streets supported a large but modest Malay settlement of businesses and residences.
The Boomtown Years (1827-1942)
Despite early successes, Singapore was almost entirely dependent on entrepôt trade, which was literally at the whim of the winds. Dutch trading power still threatened its economic health, and the opening of Chinese trading ports to Western ships placed Singapore in a precarious position. The soil on the island barely supported a small sago palm industry, and with the lack of natural resources, Singapore had to constantly look to trade for survival. True economic stability wouldn't arrive until the 1860s.
Major changes around the globe had an enormous effect on Singapore in the second half of the 19th century. In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and putting Singapore in a prime position on the Europe-East Asia route. In addition, steamship travel made the trip to Singapore less dependent on trade winds. The shorter travel time not only saw entrepôt trade leap to new heights, but also allowed leisure travelers to consider Singapore a viable stop on their itinerary.
The blossoming Industrial Revolution thirsted for raw materials, namely tin and rubber. Malaya was already being mined for tin, much of which changed hands in Singapore. Rubber didn't enter the scene until 1877, when "Mad" Henry Ridley, director of the Botanic Gardens, smuggled the first rubber seedlings from Brazil to Singapore. After developing a new way to tap latex, he finally convinced planters in Malaya to begin plantations. To this day, rubber remains a major industry for Malaysia.
Resource Scarcity -- Entrepôt trade is the term given when imported commodities are processed, graded and repackaged, and then exported at a markup. For a resource-scarce city like Singapore, entrepôt trade has been a lifeline: In the late 19th century, Singapore was the world's largest tin-smelting center. Today Singapore is the third-largest petroleum refiner, importing oil from Malaysia and Indonesia.
Made in Singapore -- Tiger Balm is one of Singapore's most endearing global brands. The herbal ointment, which comes in tiny glass pots covered in colorful postage-stamp paper scrawled with Chinese characters and a leaping tiger, was actually invented in Burma in the late 1800s by Aw Chu Kin. In 1920, his two sons, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, moved the business to Singapore, where it has been based since.
World War II -- Although the British maintained a military base of operations on the island, Singapore was virtually untouched by World War I. Just before the Great Depression, however, Britain bowed to U.S. pressure and broke off relations with Japan due to the latter's increasing military power. Singapore's defense became a primary concern; however, the British, believing any invasion would come by sea, installed heavy artillery along the southern coastline, leaving the north of the island virtually unprotected.
In 1941, on the night of December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, invaded the Philippines and Hong Kong, landed in southern Thailand, and dropped the first bombs on Singapore.
Japanese Lieutenant General Yamashita, emerging from battles in Mongolia, saw a definite advantage in Singapore's unprotected northern flank and stealthily moved three divisions -- almost 20,000 troops -- down the Malay Peninsula on bicycles. On the evening of February 8, 1942, the army quietly invaded the island. The British tried to hold off their attackers but lost ground. Within days, the Japanese were entrenched.
The occupation brought terrible conditions to multiethnic Singapore, as the Japanese ruled harshly and punished any word of dissent with prison or worse. Mass executions were commonplace, prisoners of war were tortured and killed, and it was said that the beaches at Changi ran red with blood. Some prisoners who survived were sent to Thailand to work on the railway. Conditions were worst for the island's Chinese, many of whom were arrested indiscriminately simply because of their ethnicity, rowed out to sea, and dumped overboard. Little information from the outside world, save Japanese propaganda, reached Singapore's citizens during this time. Poverty, sickness, and starvation became a daily reality.
Mercifully, the Japanese surrender came before Singapore became a battleground once again. On September 5, 1945, British warships arrived, and a week later, the Japanese officially surrendered to Lord Louis Mountbatten, supreme Allied commander in Southeast Asia.
The Postwar Years
Under British rule once again, Singapore spent the following 10 years revitalizing itself, while efforts to become a fully self-governing nation were tantamount. Living conditions were terrible and food was scarce, but the British helped with post-occupation reconstruction to clean up the port and harbor and return them to civilian control, restore public utilities, and overhaul the police force. However, resentment against the British was very strong for the way they'd lost the island to the Japanese in 1941.
The Rise of Lee Kuan Yew & Singaporean Independence
In 1949, Lee Kuan Yew, a third-generation Straits Chinese and a law student at Cambridge, formed a discussion group in London aimed at bringing together Malayan overseas students. Upon his return to Singapore, his education completed, Lee made a name for himself as an effective courtroom lawyer. Around this time, Chinese in Malaya were forming the Malaya Communist Party, inspired by mainland China's break from Western hegemonic powers, as a path toward national independence. Although Lee secretly detested communist politics, he recognized the strength of their numbers. Backed by local communists, he formed the People's Action Party (PAP).
By 1957, Malaya had gained independence, and Singapore was granted permission to establish its own fully elected, 51-seat Legislative Assembly. In the first elections for this body, in 1959, the popular PAP swept 43 of the seats and Lee Kuan Yew became the city-state's first prime minister. It wasn't until after his election that it became evident that Lee's politics were not in line with communist ideals.
After his election, it was Lee's wish to see Singapore and Malaya unite as one nation, but the Malayan government was fearful of Singapore's dominant Chinese influence and fought to keep the city-state out. In 1963, however, they broke down and admitted Singapore as a member. It was a short-lived marriage. When the PAP began to expand its influence throughout Malaysia, as the new union was renamed, the latter became distrustful and demanded Singapore be expelled. On August 9, 1965, Singapore found itself an entirely independent country. Lee's tearful television broadcast announcing Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia and simultaneous gain of independence is one of the most famous in Singapore's history. In 1971, the last British military forces left the island.