Singapore (Singapura, 新加坡) is a city-state in Southeast Asia that became independent from the British in 1965 and is now one of the world’s leading economic centre in shipping and banking. Combining the skyscrapers and subways of a modern, affluent city with a mix of Chinese, Malay, Arab, and Indian influences alongside a tropical climate, tasty food from hawker centres, copious shopping malls, and vibrant night-life scene, this Garden City makes a great stopover or springboard into the region.
Singapore is a microcosm of Asia, populated by Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a large group of workers and expatriates from all across the world.
Two casino complexes — or “Integrated Resorts”, to use the Singaporean euphemism — opened in 2010 in Sentosa and Marina Bay as part of Singapore’s new Fun and Entertainment drive, the aim being to double the number of tourists visiting and increase the length of time they stay within the country. See Do, Gambling, below.
The first records of Singapore date back to the second and third centuries where a vague reference to its location was found in Greek and Chinese texts, under the names of Savana (Σαβάνα) and Pu Luo Chung respectively.
According to legend, Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama landed on the island and, catching sight of a strange creature that he thought was a lion, decided to find a new city he called Singapura, Sanskrit for Lion City, c. 1299. Alas, there have never been any lions anywhere near Singapore (until the Singapore Zoo opened) or elsewhere on Malaya in historical times, so the mysterious beast was more probably a tiger or wild boar.
More historical records indicate that the island was settled at least two centuries earlier and was known as Temasek, Javanese for “Sea Town”, and an important port for the Sumatran Srivijaya kingdom. However, Srivijaya fell around 1400 and Temasek, battered by the feuding kingdoms of Siam and the Javanese Majapahit, fell into obscurity.
As Singapura, it then briefly regained importance as a trading centre for the Melaka Sultanate and later, the Johor Sultanate. However, Portuguese raiders then destroyed the settlement and Singapura faded into obscurity once more.
The story of Singapore as we know it today began in 1819, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles made a deal with a claimant to the throne of the Sultanate of Johor: the British would support his claim in exchange for the right to set up a trading post on the island.
Though the Dutch initially protested, the signing of the Anglo-Dutch treaty in 1824, which separated the Malay world into British and Dutch spheres of influence (resulting in the current Malaysia–Indonesia and Singapore-Indonesia borders), ended the conflict. The Dutch renounced their claim to Singapore and ceded their colony in Malacca to the British, in exchange for the British ceding their colonies on Sumatra to the Dutch.
Well-placed at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca, straddling the trade routes between China, India, Europe, and Australia, Raffles’ master stroke was to declare Singapore a free port, with no duties charged on trade. As traders flocked to escape onerous Dutch taxes, the trading post soon grew into one of Asia’s busiest, drawing people from far and wide. Along with Penang and Malacca, Singapore became one of the Straits Settlements and a jewel in the British colonial crown. Its economic fortunes received a further boost when palm oil and rubber from neighbouring Malaya were processed and shipped out via Singapore.
In 1867, Singapore was formally split off from British India and became a directly ruled Crown Colony.
When World War II broke out, Fortress Singapore was seen as a formidable British base, with massive naval fortifications guarding against assault by sea. However, not only did the fortress lack a fleet, as all ships were tied up defending Britain from the Germans, but the Japanese wisely chose to cross Malaya by bicycle instead!
Despite hastily turning the guns around, this was something the sea-focused British commanders had not considered, and on 15 Feb 1942, with supplies critically low after less than a week of fighting, Singapore was forced to surrender. The British prisoners of war were packed off to Changi Prison. Tens of thousands perished in the subsequent brutal Japanese occupation. The return of the British in 1945 to one of their most favoured colonies was triumphalist.
Granted self-rule in 1955, Singapore briefly joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 when the British left, but was expelled because the Chinese-majority city was seen as a threat to Malay dominance. The island became independent on 9 August 1965, thus becoming the only country to gain independence against its own will in the history of the modern world!
The subsequent forty years rule by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saw Singapore’s economy boom, with the country rapidly becoming one of the wealthiest and most developed in Asia despite its lack of natural resources, earning it a place as one of the four East Asian Tigers. Now led by Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) continues to dominate the political scene. Societal restrictions have been loosened up in recent years though, with the government trying to shake off its staid image, and it remains to be seen how the delicate balancing act between political control and social freedom will play out.