A Brief History of Singapore

By Tim Lambert

The Foundation of Singapore

According to legend, Singapore was founded centuries ago when a prince from Sumatra landed on the island and saw a lion. He took it as a good omen and founded a city called Singapura, which means lion city. The legend may or may not be true. The name Singapura was not recorded until the 16th century and Singapore was only a trading post with a small population, not a city.

Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles (1781-1826). Raffles became a clerk for the British East India Company in 1795. He rose rapidly in the company. In 1805 he was sent to Penang and in 1811 he was made Lieutenant-Governor of Java.

In 1818 Raffles was made governor of Bencoolen on the island of Sumatra. Raffles believed the British should establish a base on the Straits of Melaka and in 1819 he landed on the island of Singapore. The island consisted of swamps and jungle with a small population but Raffles realized it could be made into a useful port.

At that time two men were vying to become Sultan of the Empire of Johor, which controlled Singapore. In 1812 the Sultan died and his two sons quarreled over the succession. Raffles supported the older brother Hussein and recognized him as Sultan. Raffles made a deal with him. The British East India Company was given Singapore in return for an annual payment. In 1824 the Company was given the island in return for a lump sum of money.

The British established a new trading post in Singapore and it grew very rapidly. As well as Europeans, Malays, Chinese, Indians, and Arabs came to live and work there. By 1824 the population had risen to 10,000.

In 1826 Singapore was joined with Melaka and Penang to form the Straits Settlements. In 1867 Singapore became a Crown Colony ruled directly by the British government rather than the East India Company. By 1870 the population of Singapore had risen to 100,000.

Many grand buildings were erected in Singapore in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them was the Victoria Theatre & Concert Hall, which was built in 1862.

Several temples were built at that time including the Thian Hock Keng Temple, which was built in 1842. The Sri Mariamman Temple was first built in 1823 but it was rebuilt in 1843. The Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple was built in 1855. The Leong San See Temple was built in 1917. The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple was built in 1927.

When the Suez Canal was built in 1869 Singapore became even more important as a ‘gateway’ between Europe and Eastern Asia.

Modern Singapore

In the early 20th century Singapore continued to prosper. Huge amounts of rubber and tin from the region were exported from Singapore. Meanwhile, Chinese immigrants continued to arrive.

Then in January 1942, the Japanese conquered Malaysia. On 15 February 1942, Singapore was forced to surrender. The Japanese called Singapore Yonan, which means Light of the South but their rule was tyrannical. Thousands of Chinese Singaporeans were executed.

However, Japan surrendered in August 1945, and on 5 September 1945 the British re-occupied Singapore.

However, after 1945 Singapore slowly moved towards independence. In 1946 the Strait Settlements were dissolved and Singapore was separated from Malaysia. The People’s Action Party was formed in 1954 and it proved to be a major force in Singaporean politics. In 1955 a new constitution was introduced. Under it 25 out of 32 members of the legislature were elected. In 1957 it was replaced by an elected 51-member legislature. The Peoples Action Party led by Lee Kuan Yew won 43 out of 51 seats.

Self-government was granted in 1959. Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister. n In 1963 Singapore joined with Malaysia. However, the union was short-lived. Singapore left in 1965 and became completely independent.

From 1965 to the 1990s Singapore enjoyed rapid economic growth. By the 1990s it was a NIC (newly industrialized country) and the people had a high standard of living. However, the government was authoritarian and society was strictly controlled.

In 1990 Lee Kuan Yew resigned as prime minister. He was replaced by Goh Chok Tong. He introduced a more liberal regime. Today Singapore is a prosperous nation and its economy is growing steadily. Singapore is also a very busy port. In 2024 the population of Singapore was 5.9 million.

Last revised 2024