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    Singapore Historical Setting
    Source: The Library of Congress Country Studies


    Statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore

    FAVORABLY LOCATED AT the southern end of the Strait of Malacca, the shortest sea route between China and India, the island of Singapore was known to mariners as early as the third century A.D. By the seventh century, the Srivijaya Empire, the first in a succession of maritime states to arise in the region of the Malay Archipelago, linked numerous ports and cities along the coasts of Sumatra, Java, and the Malay Peninsula. Singapore probably was one of many outposts of Srivijaya, serving as an entrepĂ´t and supply point for Chinese, Thai, Javanese, Malay, Indian, and Arab traders. An early chronicle refers to the island as Temasek and recounts the founding there, in 1299, of the city of Singapura ("lion city"). In the following three centuries, Singapura came under the sway of successive Southeast Asian powers, including the empires of Srivijaya, Majapahit, and Ayutthaya and the Malacca and Johore sultanates. In 1613 the Portuguese, the newest power in the region, burned down a trading post at the mouth of the Singapore River, and the curtain came down on the tiny island for two centuries.

    In 1818 Singapore was settled by a Malay official of the Johore Sultanate and his followers, who shared the island with several hundred indigenous tribespeople and some Chinese planters. The following year, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, an official of the British East India Company, arrived in Singapore and secured permission from its Malay rulers to establish a trading post on the island. Named by Raffles for its ancient predecessor, Singapore quickly became a successful port open to free trade and free immigration. Before the trading post's founding, the Dutch had a monopoly on the lucrative three-way trade among China, India, and the East Indies. Now Indian, Arab, European, Chinese, Thai, Javanese, and Bugis traders alike stopped in their passage through the Strait of Malacca to anchor in the excellent harbor and exchange their wares. Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, and Europeans flocked to the growing settlement to make their fortunes servicing the needs of the sea traders.

    The next half century brought increased prosperity, along with the growing pains of a rapidly expanding seaport with a widely diverse population. During this period Singapore, Penang, and Malacca were ruled together as the Straits Settlements (see Glossary) from the British East India Company headquarters in India. In 1867, when Singapore was a bustling seaport of 85,000 people, the Straits Settlements was made a crown colony ruled directly from London. Singapore continued to grow and prosper as a crown colony. The opening of the Suez Canal, the advent of steamships, the expansion of colonialism in Southeast Asia, and the continuing spread of British influence in Malaya combined to establish Singapore's position as an important trade and manufacturing center in the late nineteenth century.

    In the early twentieth century, financial institutions, transportation, communications, and government infrastructure expanded rapidly to support the booming trade and industry. Social and educational services lagged far behind, however, and a large gulf separated the upper classes from the lower classes, whose lives were characterized by poverty, overcrowding, malnutrition, disease, and opium addiction. Singapore was largely unaffected by World War I. Following the war, the colony experienced both boom and depression, but on the whole, expanded and prospered.

    During the period between the world wars, Singapore's Chinese took increasing interest in events in China, and many supported either the Chinese Communist Party or the Guomindang (Kuomintang-- Chinese Nationalist Party). The Malayan Communist Party ( MCP--see Glossary) was organized in 1930 and competed with the local branch of the Guomindang. Beginning in the early 1930s, both groups strongly supported China against the rising tide of Japanese aggression. Japan's lightning attack on Malaya in December 1941 took the British by surprise, and by mid-February the Japanese were in control of both Malaya and Singapore. Renamed Syonan ("Light of the South"), Singapore suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation.

    Although Singaporeans tumultuously welcomed the return of the British in 1945, their view of the colonial relationship had changed forever. Strikes and student demonstrations organized by the MCP increased throughout the 1950s. The yearning for independence was beginning to be felt in Singapore and Malaya as it was all over the colonial world. In 1953 a British commission recommended partial internal self-government for Singapore, which had been governed as a separate crown colony following the formation of the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Political parties began to form. In 1954 a group of anticolonialists led by David Marshall formed the Labour Front, a political party that campaigned for immediate independence within a merged Singapore and Malaya. That same year saw the formation of the People's Action Party ( PAP--see Glossary) under Lee Kuan Yew, which also campaigned for an end to colonialism and union with Malaya. The Labour Front formed a coalition government with David Marshall as chief minister following elections in 1955 for the newly established Legislative Assembly. In 1956-58, Merdeka (freedom in Malay) talks were held in London to discuss the political future of Singapore, As a result of the discussions, Singapore was granted internal self-government, whereas defense and foreign affairs were left in the hands of the British.

    In the May 1959 election, the PAP swept the polls, and Lee became prime minister. Singapore's foreign and local business communities were greatly alarmed by the turn of events, fearing that the communist wing of the PAP would soon seize control of the government. The PAP moderates under Lee, however, favored independence through merger with Malaya. Singaporean voters approved the PAP merger plan in September 1962, and on September 16, 1963, Singapore joined Malaya and the former British Borneo territories of Sabah and Sarawak to form an independent Malaysia. After two years of communal strife, pressure from neighboring Indonesia, and political wrangling between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, however, Singapore was forced to separate from Malaysia and became an independent nation on August 9, 1965.

    Singaporeans and their leaders immediately accepted the challenge of forging a viable nation on a tiny island with few resources other than the determination and talent of its people. The leaders sought to establish a unique "Singaporean identity" and to strengthen economic and political ties with Malaysia, Indonesia, and the other countries of the region. The government also began to reorient the economy toward more high-technology industries that would enhance the skills of the labor force and attract increased foreign investment. By the 1970s, Singapore was among the world leaders in shipping, air transport, and oil refining. By the mid1980s , the first generation of leaders under Lee Kuan Yew had successfully guided the nation for more than two decades, and a new generation was beginning to take charge.

    Data as of December 1989

    NOTE: The information regarding Singapore on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Singapore Historical Setting information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Singapore Historical Setting should be addressed to the Library of Congress.

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    Revised 04-Jul-02
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